On the agenda: Avatars could help treat schizophrenia

A radical new approach to helping people with schizophrenia control the voices of their hallucinations is being developed through the use of avatars.

Computer avatar: New approach to treating hallucinations
Computer avatar: New approach to treating hallucinations

In more detail

The Wellcome Trust has granted researchers at University College London (UCL) £1.3m to refine a computer-based avatar system that has been tested on 16 schizophrenia sufferers so far. It enables patients to control the voice of their hallucinations and aims to help reduce the frequency and severity of episodes of schizophrenia. 

The scheme lets the patient create a digital avatar by choosing a face and voice for the entity it believes is talking to them. The system then synchronises the avatar’s lips with a therapist’s speech, allowing a therapist to speak to a patient through the avatar in real time. The therapist then encourages the patient to oppose the voice and gradually teaches people to take control of their hallucinations. 

Following an early pilot of the approach, in which almost all of the 16 patients in the trial reported a reduction in the frequency and severity of the voices they heard, the grant will allow the researchers to conduct a larger, randomised study and refine this form of therapy. 

PR strategy

The Wellcome Trust organised a press briefing to give the researchers the opportunity explain the nature of the project in their own words. The Trust worked with the UCL and Kings College London press offices to prepare the release handed out on the day and an anonymous case study to provide journalists with a human angle for the story. 

Media coverage 

The story was picked up by newswires Bloomberg, Reuters and Press Association. The BBC, The Guardian and the London Evening Standard all covered the news. 

Key figures

1 in 100 amount of people affected by schizophrenia worldwide*

222,000 estimated amount of people suffering from schizophrenia living in England**

*The Mental Health Foundation

**The Schizophrenia Commission

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