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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK
Virtual reality aid for schizophrenia
The device mimics hallucinations
The device mimics hallucinations
Showing schizophrenic patients "virtual reality" hallucinations, could help convince them their own hallucinations are not real, scientists believe.

The psychiatrists who devised the technique believe it could show them they have a condition which requires treatment.

UK mental health experts said using virtual hallucinations on vulnerable patients was interesting, but required caution.

But they said it could be useful in showing relatives and carers what schizophrenia is like.


One area where it could be introduced immediately is in tackling the public's prejudice, ignorance and fear of severe mental illness

Paul Corry, National Schizophrenia Fellowship
The virtual hallucinations have the same sights and sounds a patient would see in a real one - such as hearing the TV tell them to kill themselves, walls closing in or one person's face morphing into another, with an abusive running commentary.

One in 10 people with schizophrenia is eventually driven to suicide.

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane have built a prototype 3D virtual reality simulation, which they say could be used to help patients confront their psychoses when drug therapy fails.

They say it could work in the same way as using virtual reality to help people get over phobias about spiders or heights.

The simulator has a wrap-around screen onto which an image of a typical living room is projected.

It can be changed to replicate common hallucinations.

Frightening

The researchers, led by Dr Peter Yellowlees, a psychiatrist at the University of Queensland, are now attempting to recreate the hallucinations experienced by a woman whose schizophrenia is now under control.

The next step will be to use virtual reality in a treatment programme for patients.

Dr Yellowlees has already used video-conferencing to treat schizophrenic patients in remote parts of Australia.

He admits some patients may find the virtual hallucinations frightening, but is optimistic many will be able to distinguish between real hallucinations and the virtual ones.

Andy Dennison, a member of the research team, said it is hoped it will eventually be possible to model the hallucinations on environments relevant to each patient.

"They would bring us a few photos and we would build a virtual model of their sitting room or a hospital environment," he said.

Courage

Paul Corry of the UK's National Schizophrenia Fellowship told BBC News Online: "This is an exciting development and shows how modern technological breakthroughs can be applied to severe mental illness, a health area often overlooked by researchers.

"Its application would need to be carefully monitored as people with schizophrenia whose thoughts are already disturbed, may find the experience of another altered reality troubling."

He added: "One area where it could be introduced immediately is in tackling the public's prejudice, ignorance and fear of severe mental illness.

"This 3D 'virtual' experience would allow the public to rethink their attitudes to people who live with hallucinations and to appreciate the courage of the very many people with schizophrenia who are able to recover a meaningful and fulfilling life."

See also:

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