Scientists have used a computer game and an MRI scanner to help schizophrenia patients control verbal hallucinations.

A pilot study by researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) and the University of Roehampton suggests the new technique could help patients who experience hallucinations but do not respond to medication.

With 30% of schizophrenia sufferers falling under this category, the technique has the potential to help as many as 15 million people globally.

The study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, looked at 12 patients who experienced nasty and threatening verbal hallucinations every day.

Brain imaging experts focused on an area of the brain that is sensitive to speech and human voices, and is hyperactive in people with schizophrenia.

Patients were then asked to play a video game while in an MRI scanner, where they monitored their own neural activity in the speech-sensitive area of the brain. This activity was visually represented by a rocket, which patients were instructed to land.

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Taking control over the virtual rocket, without explicit instructions on how to do so, helped patients to develop their own mental strategies to deal with verbal hallucinations.

After each patient had four turns in the MRI scanner, they found that their hallucinated voices became less external and more internal, and therefore less stressful and easier to cope with.

Dr Natasza Orlov, from King’s College London, said: “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.”

However, while the results are promising, it is only a small pilot study that also lacked a control group.

“These are still early days in our research,” said Professor Paul Allen, from the University of Roehampton.

“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.”