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A psychiatrist in England is using digital avatars -- almost like characters in a video game -- to help people with schizophrenia put a face to the voices in their heads.

"If you hear an invisible entity generally putting you down and commanding you to do terrible things, it's almost impossible to create a dialogue with them because they only speak in short phrases and they don't respond," says Doctor Julian Leff, who is developing this method of avatar therapy. "It seemed to me if I could help the patient create a proper dialogue with the voice, then it might be possible for them to take more control of it."

How does the system work? The BBC explains:

Via a computer link, Professor Leff spoke to patients from another room entirely. Over the course of up to six therapy sessions Professor Leff played the role of both the avatar and the therapist. When speaking as the avatar, Professor Leff's custom-built software altered his voice... In his normal voice he can then support the patient to stand up to the voice.

By the end of their treatment, patients who completed the therapy reported that they heard the voices less often or were less distressed by them. Levels of depression and suicidal thoughts also decreased; a particularly relevant outcome-measure in a patient group where one in 10 will attempt suicide.

To hear more about avatar therapy, click on the audio player above.

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