At Janssen Pharmaceutica headquarters in Titusville, N.J., drug makers, psychologists and psychiatrists have come together to create a new type of virtual reality experience.
It's called the Mindstorm and, while it may sound like a video game, this 3-D, virtual reality simulator, which looks like a small movie theater, is anything but child's play.
"The Mindstorm program is a virtual hallucination experience," Gahan Padina, a clinical psychologist and consultant for Janssen Pharmaceutica, told ABC News. "It gives an individual the experience of what it might be like to be a patient with schizophrenia."
It's labeled after many schizophrenic patients' descriptions of what it's like to live with this disease — many say the experience of schizophrenia is "like having a storm in their mind," said Padina. Mindstorm was designed to provide mental health professionals, physicians, law enforcement officials and patients' families with an experience similar to that of their mentally ill patients, perpetrators and family members.
"The Mindstorm experience is one where people come into the simulator [and] start to view what an average day might be like for a patient with schizophrenia. It is set in a person's home and really designed to be a typical day, but the experience is one of what it might be like to have visual hallucinations or alterations in a visual field, sounds or voices commenting on your behavior on things around you, and even the smells and the different sensory experiences that patients might have and the intensity that they feel these experiences," said Padina.
Mindstorm's simulations are set in a variety of everyday locations and situations, from shopping at the grocery store to waiting in the doctor's office to riding the city bus.
But these "normal" experiences go from simulation to hallucination extremely quickly, bombarding its viewers with multiple voices; jarring sounds; disturbing images; delusional thoughts called "ideas of reference"; and even strange, often revolting, odors. To complete this full sensory experience, the designers of this 3-D simulator even added fans to create the sensation of wind in their participants' faces for a more realistic experience.
Filled with such outbursts as "You're such a waste of space, a waste of our time," and "Don't eat! Out to get you! Poison!" and images of rancid bubbling pizza, Mindstorm is so lifelike that even Padina finds it difficult to watch. "It's really very disturbing and, I think, very eye-opening for people," he said.
Disturbing and eye-opening, for sure, but also groundbreaking and inspiring, because Mindstorm is the first virtual reality experience of its kind to combine psychological and psychiatric diagnoses and definitions with input and testimonials from actual patients suffering from schizophrenia.
"We based [the simulation] on real patient case examples," said Padina. "We talked to individuals in the field, other psychiatrists and based it on patients I've treated in the past as well. We basically tried to mirror the experience that they have."
Despite nearly a century of research, scientists and psychologists are still baffled by the origins and causes of this mental illness. Many hope that the combination of scientific study and Mindstorm's technology will lead researchers to a better understanding of this illness and, hopefully, to an eventual cure.
"We understand something about the disorder, but not everything," said Padina. "We do not [know] what causes the disorder, although we have many theories. We know something about the biology of the disorder, but, again, the full story has not been told."
Interestingly, one of the scenarios ends with a family member who tells the viewer to take his medication, Janssen Pharmaceutica medication. At that point, the perspective changes dramatically, the voices disappear and the delusions vanish — an obvious reminder, or advertisement, that pharmaceuticals can help patients manage and live with this illness.
When asked what that scene was meant to portray, Padina said that medications were an important element to schizophrenics' treatment.
"I think the important message there is that others really help to ground patients with schizophrenia," said Padina, "and [that] there are many different things that are needed to manage this complex illness."
Regardless of its motives, for now Janssen Pharmaceutica plans on renting the Mindstorm out to medical conventions, conferences, associations and hospitals to allow professionals and individuals to try out this unique experience.
Ultimately, the Mindstorm's designers hope that this machine will draw attention to this disease, bringing schizophrenia into the mainstream by making it more manageable and comprehensible to doctors, psychiatrists and the general public.
"In psychology and psychiatry both, we've attempted [over the years] to try and simulate the feelings and the experiences that patients have, but, I think, with new technologies, in particular, being able to project in three dimensions, using the different modalities — smell, sensation and touch — makes it a much more powerful experience," said Padina.