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Schizophrenia Treatment Has Patients Face Their Demons in VR

An experimental treatment using virtual reality (VR) at the Phillippe-Pinel Institute in Montreal is forming part of a pilot program to treat patients with schizophrenia. The project was developed by psychiatrist Alexandre Dumais and involves the patients facing a VR recreation of the voices inside their heads.

Patients chosen to be part of the pilot project, which was inspired by a study conducted in the UK in 2010, speak with a design technician and describe the monsters that torment them and provide a list of the phrases that the patient often hears their invisible tormentor say. Then, using a VR headset, the patient comes face-to-face with their demons, slowly learning how to face them and fight back against the insults hurled at them.

One of the patients involved in the study in Richard Breton, a 52 year old man who has been living with schizophrenia since his 20s. Faced with a condition that was not fully responding to traditional therapy and medication, he turned to the pilot project.

“You’re not a good father. Nobody loves you,” the avatar inside the VR simulation tells Breton, in a satanic voice.

“I’m a good person,” Breton has learned to respond. “Give me any trouble, and I’ll make you go back inside.”

Breton has experienced good results from the program so far, crediting it with the diminishing of the voices that tormented him and allowing him to return to work and a social life.

There have been nineteen patients involved with the project since it began in 2015, with fifteen reporting significant improvement. Some patients have reported that the slightly cartoonish, unrealistic avatars limited the effectiveness of the treatment. As a result, a second phase of the project is being launched that will create more realistic versions of the patients’ inner demons.

VRFocus will continue to report on advances in VR in healthcare.