A high-tech computer game linked up to brain scanners has been used to stop people hearing voices in their head.
Experts at King’s College London managed to use the technology to treat people with schizophrenia, in a major psychiatric breakthrough.
Hearing voices – known as ‘verbal hallucinations’ – is highly distressing and a third of patients do not respond to medications.
The ‘astonishing’ new technology involves using live MRI brain scans which monitor the part of the brain that responds to speech and human voices.
That part of the brain – the superior temporal gyrus – goes hyperactive when schizophrenic patients suffer verbal hallucinations.
Scientists linked the MRI scans to a simple computer game, in which a rocket soars into the air when the superior temporal gyrus goes into overdrive, and flies back to Earth when it is less active.
The researchers, whose work is published in the Translational Psychiatry journal, found they could use the system to teach people to turn off the voices in their head.
A pilot study of 12 patients, each of whom experienced verbal hallucinations on a daily basis, showed it was highly successful.
The participants were instructed to land the rocket by bringing it down to earth.
They were given no instructions about how to move the rocket – and instead patients were asked to develop their own mental strategies to move it.
It is the first time the technique, called a ‘neurofeedback’ system, have been shown to work for verbal hallucinations.
Crucially, after using the machine four times the participants learned how to switch off the voices even when they were no longer hooked up to the system.
The researchers believe these strategies will help them for the rest of their lives.
Researcher Dr Natasza Orlov from King’s said: ‘We encouraged our patients to use the same control strategies that they learnt in the MRI scanner at home.
‘The patients know when the voices are about to start – they can feel it, so we want them to immediately put this aid into effect to lessen them, or stop the voices completely.
‘Our study has shown that people with schizophrenia can learn some sort of mental strategy to help their symptoms – something which several years of medication has not helped with.’
She aded: ‘Although the study sample size is small and we lacked a control group, these results are promising. We are now planning to conduct a randomised controlled study to test this technique in a larger sample.’
Fellow researcher Professor Paul Allen, from the University of Roehampton, added: ‘The results of this pilot are astonishing as almost everyone in the patient group was able to control the space rocket, successfully bringing the rocket in the game back down to the ground.
‘What this means is that by using this technique, patients learnt to control brain activity in the area of the brain that responds to voices – an area we know is hyperactive in people whom experience auditory verbal hallucinations.
‘These are still early days in our research, however, patients who took part in the pilot study have told us that the training has helped them to calm their external voices down, so that they were able to internalise them more.’