A new therapy has been discovered that helps schizophrenics to control their hallucinations.
A trial using avatars that patients created showed that for most patients the voices they were hearing had improved.
The study was with patients who had not responded to medication, as an alternative therapy to address hallucinations and voices.
Patients were able to create the avatars themselves using customised computer software to match the voices they had been hearing.
With sessions of therapy using the avatar, they are then coached to be able to stand up to the voices, and in theory fight them off.
Published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the trial showed that after six of these therapy sessions most patients said the voice they heard had improved and were less distressing, with three saying they had stopped hearing it entirely after years of hearing their hallucinations.
The therapy also help to decrease levels of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Only 16 of the 26 patients completed the therapy. Researchers attributed the high drop-out rate to fear instilled in patients by their voices, some of which “threatened” or “bullied” them into withdrawing from the study.
Professor Julian Leff of UCL Mental Health Sciences Unit , who led the stufy and coached the patients, said:
Even though patients interact with the avatar as though it was a real person, because they have created it, they know that it cannot harm them, as opposed to the voices, which often threaten to kill or harm them and their family.
As a result the therapy helps patients gain the confidence and courage to confront the avatar, and their persecutor.
I encourage the patient saying, 'you mustn't put up with this, you must tell the avatar that what he or she is saying is nonsense, you don't believe these things, he or she must go away, leave you alone, you don't need this kind of torment'.
The avatar gradually changes to saying, 'all right I'll leave you alone, I can see I've made your life a misery, how can I help you?' And then begins to encourage them to do things that would actually improve their life.
Paul Jenkins, of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, said:
We welcome any research which could improve the lives of people living with psychosis.
As our Schizophrenia Commission reported last year, people with the illness are currently being let down by the limited treatments available.
While antipsychotic medication is crucial for many people, it comes with some very severe side effects. Our members would be extremely interested in the development of any alternative treatments.
A larger trial featuring 142 patients is planned to start next month in collaboration with the King's College London Institute of Psychiatry.