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Amid therapy waiting lists, a new AI trainer may be a faster option

May 25, 2023 – The growth of artificial intelligence has drawn praise as well as anxiety and skepticism. But researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and their colleagues found that their AI application appears to be useful for treating anxiety and depression. And they hope it can soon help reduce the long waiting list for treatment.

In a pilot study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that Lumen, an AI-based virtual coach for behavioral therapy, altered patients’ brain activity and brought about self-reported improvements in symptoms of depression and mood. anxiety.

“It’s not a replacement [for a therapist] but could be a palliative measure,” said Olusola A. Ajilore, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of the research. The app works to provide help as soon as possible after people request it.

At her school, Ajilore said, the waiting list for therapy at the height of the pandemic was 8 months. Depression and anxiety have increased since the start of the pandemic, with depression reaching approximately 32% among American adults by 2021 and more than 40 million with anxiety disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In recent years, many AI-based mental health programs, which combine computing and datasets to help solve problems, have emerged, including wysawhich the company claims has more than 5 million users; Replika, which aims to help people cope with stress; And mood mission, which the developers claim is intended to help users overcome depression and anxiety.

A distinguishing feature of the new app is evidence linking clinical responses to brain imaging findings, Ajilore said. While many such mental health apps have been developed, “high-quality clinical research into their therapeutic potential is currently lacking,” the researchers wrote.

Results of the pilot study

For the pilot study, 42 people with mild to moderate anxiety or depression used the app for eight sessions; 21 others were part of the waiting list control group. The app, developed by Ajilore and his colleagues, works as a skill in Amazon’s Alexa program.

Over the course of eight sessions over 12 weeks (four weekly, then four every two weeks), the people in the study, with an average age of 37 and 68% female, used Lumen via an iPad to treat their anxiety or their depression, using an approach called problem-solving treatment. . Brain imaging to track differences in brain activity was performed at week 1 and week 16 in all 63 patients.

Lumen is patient-focused, with the voice coach serving as a guide to identify a problem, set a goal, brainstorm solutions, choose one, develop a plan of action, do it, and then evaluate it, the researchers said. .

A typical session lasted about 12 minutes; meanwhile, people using Lumen have completed surveys and reviews. Those on the waitlist received text messages to complete surveys and assessments at similar intervals as others. Eighty-one percent of those using Lumen completed all eight sessions.

“A lot of the burden is on the patients,” Ajilore said. They are given suggestions for coping with anxiety, for example, and it is up to them to select one or more suggestions and act on them.

Those in the Lumen group saw their depression and anxiety scores drop compared to the control group. The Lumen group, compared to those on the waitlist, had increased activity in the region of the brain linked to the control of thinking skills – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – and had improved problem-solving skills.

Now researchers are recruiting 200 people with anxiety and depression to test the AI ​​voice coach in a larger clinical test further investigate the effects on symptoms of anxiety and depression. The 200 people will be randomly assigned to a Lumen group (with eight sessions over 12 weeks), in-person sessions over the same period, or a waitlisted control group.

Expert entry

Ryan Wade, MD, a psychiatrist who is the director of addiction services at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT, sees many patients with anxiety and depression. He is aware of the new study results and AI, but was not involved in the research.

He sees the AI ​​virtual coach as a viable option to help people get the help they need in these times of long waiting lists, but he also understands why some of his colleagues might be hesitant. “A big part of our training is building rapport with a patient,” he said, and it’s face-to-face.

“It won’t replace the therapist,” he said of the new technology, “but some of his work can be done in an automated way. It can help people get started. AI, he said, is good at finding solutions and solving problems — what he calls the rote or rational parts of therapy. “If we work with it, I think we can find it can be really effective.”

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