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Have You Heard of “Matrix” Treatment for Schizophrenia?

Have You Heard of “Matrix” Treatment for Schizophrenia?

Posted May. 30, 2005 03:36,   


A patient with schizophrenia, Mr. Park (26 years old), has lived for three entire years stuck in his room without going outside. He is afraid of meeting and having a conversation with people. He is unable to pay attention to one thing, even for a short moment. He found difficulty in the simulation rehabilitation program for social adaptation as well, so a doctor prescribed him “virtual reality therapy.”

Mr. Park put on a display helmet at a schizophrenia clinic that uses virtual reality therapy. The dark vision suddenly brightened and three-dimensional images appeared in Park’s sight. The doctor sets up the situation by monitoring both the patient and the simulation monitor. The first basic training step--accosting a virtual figure and initiating a conversation--begins.

Mr. Park pushes the “walking” button and approaches a cyber figure. As he accosts too close, a voice message plays out, “I am afraid you came too close.” He walks a few steps backward and keeps a proper amount of space between them. Then, Mr. Park shows hesitance in the next step: pushing the “talking” button. Ultimately, the virtual figure starts to talk to the patient first.

The next simulation step is to check whether an empty chair has been taken or not. As soon as Mr. Park’s cyber figure sits in the chair without confirming its availability, a person who has taken the seat previously shows up and gets angry with him. On his second trial he opts to use the button, “Waiting until a person shows up,” then a group of cyber figures nearby who want to sit in the chair send him uncomfortable wavelengths.

Like the Main Character in the Movie “The Matrix”-

At the Virtual Reality Clinic of Severance Mental Health Hospital located in Gwangju, Gyeonggido, this virtual reality therapy program is being held on a daily basis. The clinic is the first professional virtual treatment institute for schizophrenia in the world. This character rehabilitation system using virtual reality was co-developed by a joint team headed by Professor Kim Jae-jin of the Mental Health Hospital and Professor Kim In-yeong of the Medical Engineering Lab of Hanyang University.

“Neo” in the movie Matrix receives various fighting training in virtual reality. Likewise, patients in the virtual reality clinic take reality rehabilitation training in cyberspace set by doctors. The feeling of reality is not as strong as Neo’s central nervous system-based simulator, but both share the same principles.

The program develops when a patient clicks a proper answer. When the answer is wrong, embarrassing responses unfold. It targets patients’ self-corrections of their behavior as they experience these trials and errors by themselves.

The doctor keeps a record on the patient’s every response and analyzes them. The consumed time difference on pushing the answering buttons such as “walking” and “talking” vary with each patient’s will. That means records of this time difference are objective data judging patients’ problem-solving abilities on each situation.

Securing Both Safety and Efficiency-

The time when virtual reality therapy was first introduced in Korea goes back to 1998 when it was applied in treating less serious mental sicknesses like phobias. It made patients experience virtual situations that would cause problematic responses from them and help them to get rid of those fears by themselves. Back then, various simulation programs were developed: an indoor simulation environment for flying for patients with acrophobia, and a simulation elevator for patients with height phobia.

The patients receiving the virtual reality therapy complained about their physical uneasiness like those who suffered in real environments. However, their symptoms improved as they were more exposed to the virtual environment. When the patient goes thorough an unstable phase during the training, he or she can be free from the environment instantly by controlling the power mode.

As the cause of schizophrenia has not been clearly laid out, the schizophrenia treatments are difficult. Medicinal therapy, which is the most common treatment, deters the excretion of the nerve-transmitting substance dopamine, and eases the symptoms. But the medicine has a risk of causing side effects as it gets delivered and activated to other nerve transmitting substances. Meanwhile, virtual reality therapy has no medicinal side effects.

Professor Kim Jae-jin says, “We have been treating 20 hospitalized patients with the virtual reality therapy. They haven’t shown any denial responses and have been interested in the training program. And, the progress has been good.”

Truths and Misconceptions About Schizophrenia-

A woman in her early 20s, who cannot sleep late at night, wanders around her dark room and murmurs incomprehensible sounds.

It might look like a scene from a horror movie, but it is something found not uncommonly in the real world. About one percent of the Korean population suffers from schizophrenia, a mental disorder where one hallucinates and hears imagined things. Over two thirds of the patients hospitalized in Korea’s mental institutions are schizophrenia patients.

Although the exact cause of the disorder is still unknown, abnormalities to the brain during youth, stress, and genetic causes are known to be significant factors. There is still ongoing research on the growth environment, relationship with family, lack of hormones, communication deficit, and secretion of chemicals that atrophy the brain, among other possible causes.

Although symptoms differ between patients, one clear common feature is that their thoughts are not linked logically and are divided into separate pieces. Their moods and thoughts are inconsistent and at times pour out extremely opposite feelings. Sometimes, they also show tendencies of autism, where one cuts off contact with the outer world and lives in one’s own world.

Persecution and expansive delusion that distort the truth and accept it that way, and accompanied hallucinations are other common symptoms. The man that jumped into a news studio yelling “I have a bugging device in my ear,” is a famous case of persecution delusion due to schizophrenia.

There are also subtle signs such as the change in personality, which are harder to see than changes in actions. Eloquent people start to stammer, cannot express their feelings well, and become lethargic and impudent.

The most important part in treating schizophrenia is the help and persuasion of the family. Often, patients do not accept their condition and refuse treatment, which worsens the disorder. After being hospitalized, the patient should receive a short-term concentrated systematic treatment of drugs and social skills training. Short hospitalization stays in the early stages make it easier to return to society.

(Assistance from Seoul Samsung Hospital Psychiatry Professor Hong Kyung-soo.)

TK Sohn sohn@donga.com