People with schizophrenia can train themselves to control the part of their brain linked to hearing voices, research at King’s College London and the University of Roehampton has found.
Scientists used an MRI scanner and a computerised rocket game as part of the study, which involved 12 patients who all experienced verbal hallucinations on a daily basis.
Researchers wanted to see if reducing the activity in the speech-sensitive auditory cortex area – which is hyperactive in people with schizophrenia – would also mean the patients experienced fewer symptoms.
So they designed a ‘neurofeedback’ technique, where patients in an MRI scanner could monitor their own neural activity in that part of the brain.
The activity was represented as a computerised space rocket.
“We connected this brain region to a game which was showing a rocket floating in the sky,” said lead researcher Dr Natasza Orlov of King’s College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.
“And we asked people to try with their brain to move the rocket down to earth. If they were reducing brain activity in this brain region, then the rocket would move down with it.”
Patients weren’t given any explicit instructions about how to move the rocket – they were told to develop their own mental strategies to move it.
Professor Paul Allen from the University of Roehampton said the results were astonishing.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Not only that, but after just four sessions of controlling the rocket while in an MRI scanner, patients in the study found they were able to use the same strategies they’d used in the MRI to control the voices they heard elsewhere at other times – without even having to have the rocket in front of them.
After training, they had learned lasting techniques to control the voices they were hearing, which could help them in their daily lives.
Jamien Francis was one of the study’s participants.
“When I was channelling my positive energy in the game, it got the spaceship to move,” he told Sky News.
“And when I had negative energy it wasn’t moving. So the way that helped me in my day to day life, is that if I keep focusing on the negative, my life won’t move forward. And if I focus on the positive it will continue to move forward in a better way.”
The study sample was small and there was no control group, but Dr Orlov says it’s a promising start
She said: “We are now planning to conduct a randomised controlled study to test this technique in a larger sample.”
Some 70% of people with schizophrenia hear hallucinated voices, which can cause a high level of distress and disruption to daily life – and 30% of those patients don’t respond to medication.
So mental health groups have cautiously welcomed the research.
“Medication unfortunately does not work for everyone,” said Brian Dow, from Rethink Mental Illness.
“And for those that it does, the side effects can be significant and debilitating.
“It is important to urge caution given that the research is still in its early stages. However the potential of a non-medical intervention to manage verbal hallucinations will offer hope to many.”
It’s certainly offered hope to Jamien, who can now hold down a job after being out of work for 10 years.
Thanks to the researchers, he said: “I’m now looking forward to living life as a normal human being, as a part of society.”