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£1.9m for research into visual hallucinations

Researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), in collaboration with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) as part of King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre, have been awarded £1.9m by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in a Programme Grant for Applied Research into visual hallucinations. The aim  is to develop a much-needed evidence base to inform NHS practice in managing and treating the symptoms. 

An estimated 2 million people in the UK repeatedly see things that are not there - experiences referred to as visual hallucinations. The hallucinations can range from simple patterns and colours to grotesque disembodied faces, bizarre figures in elaborate costume, nonsense text and letter strings and extended landscape scenes. They occur in several clinical conditions of which eye disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias rank highest in terms of the number of people affected and distress caused, both to those having hallucinations themselves and their carers. However, relatively little is known about the symptom or how to treat it. 

Dr Dominic ffytche, an expert in visual hallucinations at the IoP at King’s is leading the programme with Professor Robert Howard also at the IoP at King’s. Dr ffytche says: ‘At the moment, no single clinical speciality has an overview of visual hallucinations. Depending on whether the hallucinations are a symptom of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or eye disease, you might be treated by a psychiatrist, neurologist or ophthalmologist, often with very different advice on how to treat the condition. 

‘Despite the large numbers of people suffering from these distressing symptoms, there is no clear evidence that any of the treatments actually work. Our aim is to better understand what causes visual hallucinations, identify which treatments work and ultimately, change NHS practice and policy in this area to better meet patient needs.’

The programme will bring together experts in psychiatry, neurology and ophthalmology from across King’s Health Partners, research teams in universities and NHS trusts in Newcastle, Cambridge, Liverpool and London and patient charities including the Macular Disease Society, Parkinson’s UK, Alzheimer’s Society, Royal National Institute of Blind People and, the Thomas Pocklington Trust and the 2020 Vision UK Dementia and Sight Loss Interest Group, to provide the comprehensive overview that has been missing until now.  

The five year programme, due to begin in September 2012 consists of four components: 

  • Establish how many people with eye disease, dementia or Parkinson’s disease have visual hallucinations and whether a combination of these conditions, for example both eye disease and dementia, influences the likelihood of having the symptom. 
  • People with visual hallucinations in each clinical group will be followed over time to find out what happens to their hallucinations, and how the symptoms are managed within NHS or social care settings. 
  • Determine how the hallucinations impact upon people’s quality of life and the economic cost of the symptom.
  • Explore treatment options and address a key unanswered question of whether a single type of treatment would work for visual hallucinations in eye disease, dementia and Parkinson’s disease or whether different types of treatment are required for each condition.

By 2017 a comprehensive set of guidelines on the clinical management of visual hallucinations with be available for both clinicians and patients, as well as an evidence-base from which to plan future NHS services.  

The study will be based within the Mental Health of Older Adults and Dementia Clinical Academic Group (CAG) within King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre. Funding will also be provided by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.

Further information is available about visual hallucinations as a symptom of eye disease, Parkinson’s disease or dementia from the following websites:

For further media information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, email: or tel: 0207 848 5377