Psychiatrists in the UK have come up with a fascinating new way to treat schizophrenic patients who hear voices in their head: a computer program that lets them put a face to the voice.
Patients use computer software to build an avatar that represents the voice they hear in their mind.
In trials involving up to six therapy sessions, most of the patients said they felt better. And in three cases, the patient's voice disappeared entirely.
Hearing voices is a common symptom of schizophrenia, a condition that affects about one per cent of the world's population, New Scientist reports.
Typically, the voices in people's heads are abusive, telling them to harm themselves or others. The condition can lead to feelings of helplessness for patients, who can't control what they hear.
The creation of an avatar is only the first step in the therapy. Once an accurate representation of a patient's voice exists, the leader of the study, professor Julian Leff, role-plays a version of the voice, repeating some of the abusive language the patient has described.
At the same time, he talks to the patient about what the avatar is saying.
"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'," Leff told the BBC.
The next step is adjusting the kind of language the avatar uses, and Leff shifts his role-playing to make the voice more supportive and positive.
"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."
The initial study involved a small group, comparing 14 patients who underwent avatar therapy with 12 patients who received standard antipsychotic medication and occasional visits with therapists.
Later, the patients in the second group were also offered avatar therapy.
In the end, only 16 of the 26 patients completed the therapy. According to Leff, many of the patients were "threatened" or "bullied" into withdrawing by their voices.
Still, there were largely positive results among those who did complete the study.
If the therapy is capable of helping other schizophrenic patients get their voices under control, it could be a big deal: one in four patients with schizophrenia doesn't respond to medication.
And many patients in the study reported that after successful therapy, suicidal thoughts and depression decreased - especially important since an average of one in 10 schizophrenia patients attempts suicide.
A larger study of 142 patients is planned for next month in collaboration with the King's College London Institute of Psychiatry.
Professor Thomas Craig, who will lead the larger study, is impressed with what's been accomplished so far:
"The beauty of the therapy is its simplicity and its brevity. Most other therapies for these conditions are costly and take many months to deliver."
One patient who took part in the trial said it's helped him to move forward, and he now listens to recordings of his sessions on an iPod.
"I found it good to visualize what was going on in my head," he says. "I'm doing a course now and I've moved out of home. I seem to be making strides. I learned how to handle the voices."