In summary

  • Auditory hallucinations are associated with high rates of distress in those with psychosis, compound disability, and contribute to significant clinical risk, including suicide.
  • A new Swinburne-led trial will examine whether VR-powered avatar therapy could improve outcomes for one of Australia’s most disadvantaged patient groups.
  • Swinburne has received $1.7 million in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to conduct the trials.

Hearing critical and hostile voices in your head is a reality for many of us. But for those with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders these persistent hallucinations can be highly distressing and potentially life-threatening.

New Swinburne research will test a promising new approach that recreates these voices as digital avatars using virtual reality technology, allowing them to be used in therapy sessions to help respond to, and eventually, overcome them.  

The world-first $1.7 million NHMRC-funded project is being led by Associate Professor Neil Thomas from Swinburne University of Technology, who says the research will help establish a powerful new treatment for one of Australia’s most disadvantaged patient groups.

“Current drug and therapy treatments for these persisting voice hearing experiences only have a modest impact, whereas this digitally-supported approach has produced the largest reductions in hallucination severity to date,” Associate Professor Thomas said.

“These clinical trials are a critical next step in delivering better outcomes for people living with hallucinations in an area where alternative approaches are urgently needed.”

Developing a tech solution

The trial will work to establish whether VR-powered avatar therapy is superior to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which is the standard psychological therapy approach.

The avatar software uses voice modulation and 3D animation software to recreate the auditory and visual characteristics of the dominant ‘voice’ heard by the person, offering more than 1 million voice permutations and more than 1 billion facial permutations.

The therapy can be delivered using a range of leading videoconferencing platforms and will be trialled over telehealth, helping improve access for people with psychosis.  

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Professor Karen Hapgood congratulated the Swinburne researchers on their innovative technology-based approach.

“Building on Swinburne’s strengths in medical technology and supported by the NHMRC, we’re proud to be leading this world-first trial that could help drastically improve the lives of those living with psychosis,” Professor Hapgood said.

“This research really demonstrates how technology and people working together can make a meaningful difference in our everyday lives and validates Swinburne’s focus on developing tech solutions to real-world problems,” Professor Hapgood said.

The Swinburne team is led by Associate Professor Neil Thomas, with Professor Susan Rossell, Professor Denise Meyer and Dr Elizabeth Seabrook, working alongside colleagues from University of Melbourne, University of the Sunshine Coast, Murdoch University, University of Copenhagen, University of Manchester, and University of Toronto.

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