Schizophrenia, Video Games And Real-life Avatars

Schizophrenia is an aggressive mental disorder that materialises in early adulthood or late adolescence. This disease causes delusional episodes, personality changes, agitation, confusion, psychosis and bizarre behaviour.

In layman’s terms, schizophrenics have difficulty in distinguishing between imagination and reality. As a result, they experience abnormalities in perception, content of thought and hallucinations – particularly auditory ones.

Globally, this disease affects approximately 1% of all adults. Research shows that it may develop as a result of stunted neural development in foetuses, which later in life emerges as a full-blown illness. As a mental illness, very little is truly known about it – from how and why it occurs to effective treatment methods. Both generations of antipsychotic medication that are still being used today are described as archaic in their effects. The side-effects and mood alterations that they cause are so unpleasant that patients often refuse to take them.

However, branching away from the stream of psychiatry, scientists have come up with innovative ways to create different kinds of therapy for this illness. The first development promises a new treatment that allows patients to create actual avatars to embody the voices that they hear. If you think about, it’s not a particularly novel concept. Therapists have been using computer simulations to create a safe visual world for people to deal with their phobias; from spiders to agoraphobia.

schizophrenia_by_kimi_kasumi-d2ysy11-300x225This new method is not too far from that; the patient is presented with a computer-generated avatar that is created to represent one of their distressing voices. The avatar is then customised by the patient and brought to life onscreen. The doctor is seated in a separate room and controls what this avatar says and does.

The patients are encouraged by the doctor to fight back. One researcher told the BBC that he compels them (as the avatar) to not “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.”

The results appear promising – after seven 30-minute sessions each, most of the participants in the study reported that they heard these voices less frequently and were less agitated by them when they did.

A very recent study at the University of British Columbia has researchers believing that they may be on the path to eventually finding new ways to treat the disease using a simple video game. Studies show that eye movement impairment is one of the main symptoms that make it hard for schizophrenics to carry out simple tasks such as reading a map, or even dialling a cell phone. It is also connected to difficulties in perception, which may lead to hallucinations.

In this study, test subjects play a video game called “eye soccer” for scientists to test eye movement.

Patients watch a ball move across the screen at a constant speed toward a stationary line and are asked to deduce whether it would have hit or missed the line; testing their ability to judge trajectory. Their disease causes visual impairment that prevents them from making sense of imagery; this deficit causes the brain to attempt to fill in the blanks based on experiences, which eventually result in hallucinations.

The researchers on this study are currently working to develop a mobile app that gives patients the chance to practice eye movement skills to improve their perception and their ability to carry out daily tasks. The long term effects of this therapy will be crucial in helping patients rewire their brains and could assist in decreasing hallucinatory perceptions.

I recently read a great case study on mental disorders and rehab clinics, and did some additional research and wated to share the information with those interested.

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