BACKGROUND: Patients with anorexia nervosa tend to experience an inner "eating disorder" voice. They struggle to recognise and assert their own identity over the illness's identity and relate to it from a powerless and subordinate position. AVATAR therapy was developed to help patients with psychosis to gain greater power and control over distressing voices. The goal of this study was to test the feasibility, acceptability, safety and preliminary efficacy of an adaptation of AVATAR therapy for anorexia nervosa.
METHODS: Twelve adult patients with anorexia nervosa were recruited. Ten completed an assessment session and between five to seven therapy sessions. The assessment session consisted in the creation of an avatar to represent the "eating disorder". This was accomplished by manipulating auditory and visual characteristics through a specialist computer software. During the therapy sessions, patients interacted with the avatar to assert their own desires and will. Patients completed baseline, end of intervention and follow-up (4-week) online questionnaires. A non-concurrent multiple baselines single case experimental design (SCED) was used (A1BA2). Feasibility, acceptability, safety and preliminary efficacy of the intervention were assessed.
RESULTS: The therapy met pre-specified criteria relating to (1) Feasibility: sample recruited within three months; retention rate at the end of the treatment phase = 81.9%; therapy completion rate = 90.1%. (2) Safety: no serious adverse events associated with the intervention. (3) Acceptability: mean ratings = 7.5 (SD = 2.61) out of ten, on a 0-10 scale of acceptability (10 = complete satisfaction). With regards to efficacy, participants reported significantly lower levels of distress associated with the eating disorder voice and higher levels of self-compassion at the end of treatment. No other significant changes were observed in frequency of the eating disorder voice, voice's characteristics, such as omnipotence and malevolence, eating disorder symptoms and symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. Patients' feedback indicated that the therapy had helped with their ability to stand up to the illness, make positive changes around eating, and increase their motivation to recover and self-compassion.
CONCLUSION: AVATAR therapy for anorexia nervosa is feasible, acceptable and safe for patients. Larger studies are needed to test clinical efficacy.
TRIAL REGISTRATION: The study was pre-registered on the clinicaltrials.gov registry (https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04778423).