Avatar Therapy: An innovative treatment for auditory hallucination

A hallucination can be visual or auditory, olfactory or tactile. Auditory hallucinations are among the most common and most difficult to treat. While certain medications and therapies can mitigate hallucinations, there is no cure for the condition. Antipsychotic medications can cause unwanted side effects and cognitive behavioral therapy has no effect on muting the hallucinations or reducing their prevalence.

Julian Leff, Emeritus Professor of Mental Health Sciences at University College London (UCL), and his research team carried out a study on the subject, Robert T. Muller reported in Psychology Today. They have developed a computer-based treatment method, called “Avatar Therapy.”

Working together, the therapist and the patient compose a digital facsimile of face and voice that closely resembles the patient’s description. The therapist assumes the role of one of the patient’s persecutors and their voice is synchronized with the movement of the avatar’s lips. The therapist thus makes the patient encounter a reproduction of their auditory hallucination in real time.

The patient is encouraged to speak with the avatar, slowly learning how to control the hallucination. Since auditory hallucinations can be threatening, providing a face makes them easier to confront. The therapy offers a safe space for a patient to practice opposing the voices in readiness when they materialize.

Although there has been only one pilot study, the result is encouraging. The study comprised 17 patients who had not responded to medications. After seven 30-minute sessions, patients experienced a convincing reduction in both the frequency and intensity of auditory hallucinations.

Also of significance was the complete cessation of hallucinations in three patients who had suffered for 16, 13 and 3.5 years respectively. A three-month follow-up confirmed that the voices had not returned. In addition, a decrease in depression and suicidal thoughts occurred – an encouraging result since depression and suicidal ideation is common in schizophrenia patients.

Each patient was given an MP3 recording of the conversations with their avatar from all seven sessions. Patients were encouraged to listen to these recordings when they felt threatened or harassed by the voices. Notwithstanding the positive results, Leff and his team warn that the method may not suit everyone.

The study began with 26 patients, nine of whom dropped out. The researchers attribute the dropout rate to patient’s fear of the voices and the threats made by the hallucinations. For treatment to be effective, a certain amount of tolerance is required and also the ability to manage the stress induced by the voices. The research team is working on methods to teach patients’ stress management skills so that more people can benefit from the therapy.

Technology and other sources are improving mental health treatment on a daily basis. If you or a family member are seeking information regarding mental illness and its treatment, please call the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline at 855-653-8178.