New generation of virtual humans helping to train psychologists

August 3, 2012

New technology has led to the creation of virtual humans who can interact with therapists via a computer screen and realistically mimic the symptoms of a patient with clinical psychological disorders, according to new research presented at the American Psychological Association's 120th Annual Convention.

"As this technology continues to improve, it will have a significant impact on how clinical training is conducted in psychology and medicine," said psychologist and virtual reality technology expert Albert "Skip" Rizzo, PhD, who demonstrated recent advancements in virtual reality for use in psychology.

Virtual humans can now be highly interactive, artificially intelligent and capable of carrying on a conversation with real humans, according to Rizzo, a research scientist at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. "This has set the stage for the 'birth' of intelligent virtual humans to be used in clinical training settings," he said.

virtual patient demonstration

Rizzo showed videos of trainees engaging with virtual patients called "Justin" and "Justina." Justin is a 16-year-old with a conduct disorder who is being forced by his family to participate in therapy. Justina, the second and more advanced iteration of this technology, is a sexual assault victim who was designed to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an initial test, 15 psychiatry residents, of whom six were women, were asked to perform a 15-minute interaction with Justina. Video of one such interaction shows a resident taking an initial history by asking a variety of questions. Programmed with speech recognition software, Justina responds to the questions and the resident is able to make a preliminary diagnosis.

virtual patient demonstration

Rizzo's laboratory is working on the next generation of virtual patients using information from this and related user tests, and will further modify the characters for military clinical training, which the U.S. Department of Defense is funding, he said. Some future patients that are in development are virtual veterans with depression and suicidal thoughts, for use in training clinicians and other military personnel how to recognize the risk for suicide or violence.

In the long term, Rizzo said he hopes to create a comprehensive computer training module that has a diverse library of virtual patients with numerous "diagnoses" for use by psychiatric and psychology educators and trainees. Currently, psychology and psychiatry students are trained by role-playing with other students or their supervisors to gain experience to treat patients. They then engage in supervised on-the-job training with real patients to complete their degrees. "Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of live standardized 'actor' patients who are commonly used in medical programs, so we see this technology as offering a credible option for clinical psychology training," he said. "What's so useful about this technology is novice clinicians can gain exposure to the presentation of a variety of clinical conditions in a safe and effective environment before interacting with actual patients. In addition, virtual patients are more versatile and can be available anytime, anywhere. All you need is a computer."

Explore further: Using war games to treat post-traumatic stress disorder

More information: Presentation: "Virtual Reality Goes to War: Innovations in Military Behavioral Health Care," Albert Rizzo, PhD, Session 2257, Friday, Aug. 3, 2 p.m., Rooms W206B and C, Orange County Convention Center

Related Stories

Using war games to treat post-traumatic stress disorder

May 16, 2011
For those soldiers worried about the stigma associated with seeing a therapist, virtual reality applications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be the alternative to the traditional "talk therapy." ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

knikiy
not rated yet Aug 03, 2012
I think we are training virtual psychologists in this instance. Technology is now part of the problem, not the solution. If you can be quickly slotted into some category via DSM the insurance companies are happy, pharma companies are happy but the patient is still a human being who may fit into one slot one day and a different one the next, depending on whether the psych trained on "Call of Duty" or "GTA". Drug the bejeepers out of him and let's see what happens. Its science! Let's just make it as efficient as possible.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.