Mobile app may help schizophrenics tame the wild voices in their heads

Biofeedback system that fits in a pocket can help train patients to ignore phantom voices

Information technology, especially personal computers, smartphones and handhelds, have a far greater reputation for causing mental illness than relieving it.

Not the serious kind that gets you confined to locked treatment facilities, ruins your life, your career and your hope of ever being able to cope with your own life. Not even the kind that makes getting on a reality TV series seem like a good idea.

Computers usually just amp up the stress, shrink the window of time available to do anything and stop working correctly at the exact moment you can't afford any malfunctions. In those characteristics they're exactly like every other inanimate object in the world – all of which resent the presence of humans enough that many will do what they can to thwart, punish or frustrate us just for petty revenge.

The more tiny bits of the inanimate are in a single object, the more precocious evil that object contains.

Computers make you nuts, but not really crazy

Computers are made up of a LOT of tiny parts, many of which we've made more intelligent than they already were.

That's why experienced IT people seem superstitious about the systems they work on, why they have little rules like 'if it's working, don't touch it,' even if 'It' is due for an upgrade. They know from bitter experience that any attempt to improve something that already works will, inevitably, break what currently works without delivering the benefit of the new generation of technology – at least, not without a lot of work, a lot of swearing and at least one swift kick at the casing to physically intimidate the new box into cooperating.

So reading that researchers at the University of Bergen are developing an app for smartphones or tablets they hope will help schizophrenics tame the real-sounding voices in their heads and function more effectively with non-schizophrenics, I was skeptical.

The voices schizophrenics hear, at least according to Univ. of Bergen professor Kenneth Hugdahl, aren't just impulse whispers, they're tangible voices that sound real and are difficult to ignore.

It's often difficult to even know whether the voices are coming from outside the victim's head or which are not real.

One app might help schizophrenics seem more sane

Brain scans show a drop in brain activity while a victim is hearing voices, but more activity in the sections of the brain responsible for receiving and processing language, even if there is no one speaking or any reason beyond hallucination to hear voices.

"When neurons become activated by inner voices it inhibits perception of outside speech. The neurons become ‘preoccupied’ and can’t ‘process’ voices from the outside…this may explain why schizophrenic patients close themselves off so completely and lose touch with the outside world when experiencing hallucinations." – Kenneth Hugdahl.

Non-schizophrenics hear voices, too – scraps of music stuck in our heads, random noises interpreted as human voices, the mistaken conviction someone has called your name.

The frontal lobes of schizophrenics don't function quite right, reducing their ability to tune out or ignore the phenomenon or realize that the "voices" are random noises, not orders from an unseen speaker.

Some researchers have found biofeedback methods to be effective in teaching schizophrenics to identify real voices from unreal, allowing them to ignore the random stimulus in order to focus on voices of people who are actually present or interactions with people that are not hallucinations, Hugdahl wrote.

Even some ill enough for full-time hospitalization have found biofeedback systems can teach schizophrenics to filter their voices effectively.

Systems that rely on artificial stimulation of specific muscles, EEGs that show different brain patterns for hallucinations than for real sounds are effective but ungainly.

Hugdahl's team is working on a mobile application that uses biofeedback to play a different voice in each ear simultaneously so the patient can practice distinguishing between the two and paying attention to only one.

The technique isn't proven but does show promise, at least in helping schizophrenics distinguish between real stimuli and fake and to pay attention to the correct one.

"The voices are still there, but the test subjects feel that they have control over the voices instead of the other way around. The patient feels it is a breakthrough since it means he can actively shift his focus from the inner voices over to the sounds coming from the outside," Hugdahl wrote.

The good news is that schizophrenics with experience trying to pay attention to the real world while false voices try to distract them shouldn't find any radically new level of frustration dealing with voices on a mobile computer that may speak compellingly at a million miles per hour, but can always be turned off when the users is looking for a little peace and quiet.

Now they may teach other voices to do the same thing.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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