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Avatar therapy helps to quell schizophrenic voices, experts find

Pioneering treatment with computer-generated avatars could help patients with schizophrenia to quell or banish distressing voices in their heads, psychologists in Britain said on Friday.

Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves.

Trials with 150 patients split into two groups, led by King’s College London, found the reduction in hearing voices after 12 weeks was “significantly greater’’ for people given avatar therapy than for those just given supportive counseling.

The study found the 75 patients who used the “three-way’’ therapy – talking to a psychologist.

Similarly, their personal avatar voiced by the psychologist showed “a rapid and sustained reduction in the severity of auditory verbal hallucinations that was significantly superior to that achieved by supportive counseling,’’ the scientists wrote in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

The avatars were available to the patients as faces on a computer screen with which they could interact.

“A large proportion of people with schizophrenia continue to experience distressing voices despite lengthy treatment, so it is important that we look at newer, effective and shorter forms of therapy,’’ said lead author Tom Craig of King’s College London.

“Our study provides early evidence that avatar therapy rapidly improves auditory hallucinations for people with schizophrenia, reducing their frequency and how distressing they are, compared to another type of counseling,’’ Craig said.

He said that the improvements appeared to last for up to six months, but cautioned that “these results come from one treatment centre and more research is needed to optimise the way the treatment is delivered and demonstrate that it is effective in other settings.’’

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