By Olivia Baccellieri
Mental health conditions afflict a significant proportion of the American population in a litany of ways. These health issues impact people in severe ways, and demand creative methodology in how they are treated. Specifically, over two-million Americans live with a schizophrenia diagnosis, and that number is expected to increase as more physicians become trained in recognizing and treating the condition. Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness with far-reaching consequences, as those affected experience involuntary movements, distracted thinking, and delusions. Perhaps the most devastating of its side effects, auditory and verbal hallucinations affect nearly 50-80% of people suffering from schizophrenia. These misperceptions prompt schizophrenics to see or hear stimuli that are not actually present in their surrounding environment, which can lead to dangerous encounters with other people or self-injurious behavior. This potential for danger leads people who are unfamiliar with schizophrenia to view the condition with a fearful lens, which can ultimately place schizophrenics on the periphery of society.
Due to the varied nature of its symptoms, schizophrenia is difficult for mental health professionals to treat. Generally, the standard course of treatment for schizophrenia is to prescribe a patient antipsychotic medications to increase the levels of dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters in their brain. However, these medications can have adverse side effects for patients, as 25-30% of schizophrenics with auditory and visual hallucinations report antipsychotics having little to no effect, which has prompted researchers to embark on new avenues for treatment. Fernández-Caballero et al. (2017) have begun research into how virtual-reality technology can be used to lessen a schizophrenic’s visual and auditory hallucinations. This specific program allows for patients to create avatars that reflect the qualities of their hallucinations, and to have the ability to see their internal experiences on a screen.
By viewing a physical representation of their hallucinations, patients are able to confront imaginary stimuli in a safe and monitored environment with the support of their therapists. To maximize their assistance, therapists can also create avatars to stand alongside their patients’ in the virtual setting. In addition to using the virtual-reality headset and laboratory computer, Fernández-Caballero et al. included a brain-computer interface to monitor the patient’s brainwaves, which measured how well the patient was controlling their avatar with their thoughts. This contributes to the central tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which implements an approach aimed to tack both a patient’s thoughts and feelings.
Schizophrenia is not widely understood due to its complex nature and a lack of examples regarding patients who have successfully adjusted to living with their diagnosis. Clinicians must recognize that standard methods of treatment may not be suitable for every patient, and adjusting therapeutic approaches to fit the individual provides higher-quality care. This combination of technology and talk-therapy is a groundbreaking innovation within the mental health field. Using virtual reality provides an alternative to treating schizophrenia with just antipsychotic medications, which can be incredibly costly and have numerous implications on mental and physical health. Although the Fernández-Caballero et al. method has only been tested within a small group of patients, it has the potential to significantly impact the lives of many. This particular virtual-reality program allows for patients to immerse themselves in social situations which they would otherwise seldom experience. Immersion, even in the virtual realm, can help schizophrenics become more comfortable with interpersonal reactions.
In the near future, schizophrenics will be able to use virtual reality systems in their own homes to halt the visual and auditory hallucinations that have plagued them for years, if not decades. Wondering whether technology has “gone too far” is understandable considering how rapidly devices have evolved in the past decade. However, people afflicted with devastating mental illnesses deserve to live full and meaningful lives, and if technology can aid them in achieving this goal, it should be used to its fullest capabilities. Although virtual-reality therapy remains in preliminary stages, it presents a promising avenue for treating schizophrenia, which used to be widely misunderstood both in and outside of the medical community. Such innovations within the psychological field demonstrate the immense reach of technology, and how it can give hope to those who once lived without it.
Fernandez-Caballero, A., Navarro, E., Fernandez-Sotos, P., Gonzalez, P., Ricarte, J. J., Latorre, J.M., & Rodriguez-Jimenez, R. (2017). Human avatar symbiosis for the treatment of auditory verbal hallucinations in schizophrenia through virtual/augmented reality and brain-computer interfaces. Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 11(64), 1-6. doi: 10.3389/fninf.2017.00064