A virtual version of a major hospital is being created to study how much adults with learning disabilities understand about their treatment.

The innovative project is being led by Brighton-based consultant psychologist Suzanne Conboy-Hill.

Computer experts are developing a 3D simulation of the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton which also includes versions of the city's famous landmarks like the Palace Pier.

Around 20 volunteers from the Grace Eyre Foundation, a Brighton charity which supports people with learning disabilities, will start trying out the software in October.

The hospital is being built in Second Life, an online world in which people can register and appear in the form of virtual representatives called avatars.

Once inside the hospital, each digital alter ego will be directed to a waiting room.

Then a virtual nurse will take them to a bed, where they will lie down to have virtual blood taken.

A doctor will explain that they are about to have an anaesthetic.

The person taking part can visit various rooms and locations, play videos or sound clips and look at things from different angles.

Meanwhile, a real person alongside the volunteer will answer any questions.

About a week later Dr Conboy-Hill, who works for the Sussex Partnership NHS Trust, will then speak to the patients to see how much they remember and understand about what they did.

She said: “Under the Mental Capacity Act, patients have to give valid consent in order for any treatment to be given to them.

“There are cases where we need to assess whether they have that capacity to do so.

“What we are trying to ensure is that they don't acquiesce to something without understanding what is going to happen.

“This has generally been done in the past on a one-to-one interview basis but sometimes written or verbal information can be difficult for someone with learning disabilities to process.

“It can be better when things can get simplified where possible, like using pictures.

“Going to a computer-generated image is the next step forward.

“Using this system means the volunteer is not a passive recipient of information but actively seeking it out.

“If they respond well and start asking questions then we can assess just how much they can understand and what is sinking in.”

In the long term it is hoped the system might be able to help with getting consent from patients in the future as a back up to the current method of face-to-face interviews.

The project is supported by the University of Brighton and the Imperial College in London as well as the foundation.