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Innovative new iPhone app from UiB researcher

An iPhone app developed in Bergen is helping schizophrenia patients block the unwanted voices they hear in their heads.

In the autumn of 2010, Josef Johann Bless was listening to music on his iPhone when he suddenly had an idea.

–  I was listening to a number of instruments, and as the sounds of the instruments were distributed differently to each ear, it struck me that this was very similar to the dichotic listening tests we routinely use in our laboratory. In dichotic listening, each ear is presented with different syllable sounds, and the listener must identify which syllable seems clearest, says Bless, who is a PhD candidate at UiB’s Faculty of Psychology and a member of the Bergen fMRI Group, headed by Professor Kenneth Hugdahl.

Inspired by what he was hearing, Bless set about thinking how he could put his observation to good use. The idea he and app developer Magne Gudmundsen came up with was cunning in its simplicity, and very modern: an iPhone app called iDichotic.

– Generally speaking, dichotic listening is a test of language processing and of attention. For most people, language processing takes place in the left half of the brain, but for a minority it happens in the right half. The test determines this. In addition, the test measures attention when the task is to focus on one ear at the time, Bless explains.

A field experiment

In December 2011, after a year’s work, iDichotic was launched on the App Store, where it can be downloaded for free.

– The app that’s available in the App Store is not the one we use for clinical purposes, though. It’s more of a field experiment, where we get members of the general public to test our app. They can then opt to send their test results to a secure database that the university has set up for us, says Bless.

The success of iDichotic and the attention it has brought to their work has not however distracted the researchers from their main goal: to help patients who suffer from schizophrenia.

– Whereas iDichotic is aimed at a general audience, we have developed a special practice version of the app. This is used to train patients and to help them improve their focus, so that when they hear voices, they are better able to shut these out and instead focus on other sounds. We’re working on a clinical application of the app, the researcher says.

Going international

According to Bless, the feedback from people who have tried iDichotic has been important for the development of the clinical app.

– The app has given us new options. In the past, patients had to visit our research facilities in Bergen and be tested here. Now we can visit the patients at home with the app on an iPhone and test it for a few weeks, Bless says.

The app is only being used in Norway at the moment, but is likely to be in use internationally within a couple of years.

UPDATE TO THIS ARTICLE IN FEBRUARY 2013: Based on his research, Josef Johann Bless published the article «Right on all occasions» in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

A version of this article is printed in UiB's research and education magazine Hubro international edition 2012/2013.