Researchers at UCL have found that the use of computer generated avatars can help in the management of distressing voices.

The research team led by Julian Leff, Emeritus Professor of Mental Health Sciences at UCL, has developed a computer programme that enables a person who is distressed by their voices to create an avatar of the entity, human or non-human, which they believe is speaking to them.  The therapist then encourages the voice-hearer to engage in a dialogue with their avatar, and is able to use the programme to alter the avatar so that it comes under their control. The voice eventually changes from being abusive and persecutory to being friendly and supportive.

An initial pilot study of the approach was extremely successful.  Sixteen people underwent up to seven 30 minute sessions of therapy.  All reported a reduction in the frequency and severity of their voices, and three stopped hearing malevolent voices completely.

The team has now received a £1.3 million transfer award from the Wellcome Trust to refine the system and conduct a larger scale, randomised study to evaluate this approach.  The new study, which will be conducted at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry and led by Professor Thomas Craig, expects to achieve results by the end of 2015.

Professor Leff visited Hearing the Voice in November 2011 in order to explain the use of avatar therapy for persecutory auditory hallucinations that are unresponsive to medication.  We are delighted that this important work is now receiving the attention it deserves.  For more information, please see below.

Links to the full papers for subscribing institutions:

Leff J, Williams G, Huckvale MA et al. ‘Computer-assisted therapy for medication-resistant auditory hallucinations: proof-of-concept study.’ British Journal of Psychiatry. Published online February 21 2013.

Leff J, Williams G, Huckvale MA et al. ‘Avatar therapy for persecutory auditory hallucinations: What is it and how does it work?Psychosis. Published online 4 March 2013.

Links to the media coverage:

New hope to treat schizophrenia with therapist-controlled avatars’. The Guardian, May 29 2013

Avatars ease voices for schizophrenia patients’. BBC News, May 29 2013