Sunday, May 11, 2008

'Second Life' therapy helping Asperger's patients


Have you ever been to Second Life?

It's an online world where people meet, date, conduct business and travel with virtual identities and pseudonyms.

But now, the funky computer pastime has been adopted by a local brain research center for treating autism, with very real results.

Matt Kratz, a brain health center client, brags about himself in a virtual job interview, where he can practice real-world social skills.

He has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

"I'm listening to the conversation, to pick up keys as to what to say and when to say it," he said.

It's part of an innovative new therapy offered at UTD Center for Brain Health, where patients interact with others as digital characters, or avatars, in Second Life - a virtual online world.

"Second Life is kind of this in between stage between what happens to him in real life, but it's beyond a therapy session, where it's kind of just role play," said director of the Center of Brain Health, Sandra Chapman.

The digital character conducting the practice job interview is a clinician in another room who's prepared to ask Kratz some challenging questions.

Asperger's patients typically have normal intelligence but some cognitive flaws involving change or social skills.

In the virtual therapy, Kratz actually trains his brain to adapt and respond.

"Of course, with the brain that's really about making new connections, so synapses or connections between nerve cells are really how behavior changes," said Kratz.

Kratz says the therapy has already helped him in real-life situations.

And the potential for this kind of therapy is broad.

"We're not only asking how's the brain working, but how do we make it work better?" said Chapman.

Training the brain using real-time conversations in a make-believe world.

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