Artificial intelligence could be a useful tool in treating mental health, according to the findings of a new pilot study led by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The study, which was the first to test an AI voice-based virtual coach for behavioral therapy, found changes in patients’ brain activity along with improved symptoms of depression and anxiety after using Lumen, an AI voice assistant that offers a form of psychotherapy.
The UIC team says the findings are published in the journal Translational Psychiatryprovides encouraging evidence that virtual therapy can play a role in closing gaps in mental health care, where waiting lists and access disparities are often hurdles that patients, particularly from vulnerable communities, must overcome to receive treatment.
said Dr. Olusola Aguilor, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and co-first author of Paper. “This type of technology may be a bridge. It is not intended to be a substitute for conventional treatment, but it could be an important stopping point before anyone can seek treatment.”
Lumen, which works as a skill in the Amazon Alexa app, was developed by Ajilore and senior study author Dr. John Ma, MD, Beth and George Vitoux Professor of Medicine at UIC, along with collaborators at Washington University in St. Louis and Penn State University, supported by a grant of $ $2 million from the National Institute of Mental Health.
UIC researchers recruited more than 60 patients for a clinical study to explore the app’s effect on mild to moderate depression and anxiety symptoms, and activity in areas of the brain previously shown to be associated with the benefits of problem-solving therapy.
Two-thirds of the patients used Lumen on the iPad provided in the study for eight problem-solving therapy sessions, while the rest received no intervention.
After the intervention, study participants using the Lumen app showed lower scores for depression, anxiety, and psychological distress compared to the control group. The Lumen group also showed improvements in problem-solving skills linked to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with cognitive control. Promising results have also been found for women and underrepresented populations.
“It’s about changing the way people think about problems and how they address them, and not getting emotionally overwhelmed,” said Ma. “It is a well-established, patient-driven, practical behavioral therapy, which makes it suitable for delivery using voice-based technology.”
The researcher is currently conducting a larger trial comparing Lumen use with both a wait-list control group, and patients receiving human-trained problem-solving therapy. They stress that a virtual coach need not do better than a human therapist to fill a critical need in the mental health system.
“The way we should think about digital mental health is not for these apps to replace humans, but rather to recognize the gap that exists between supply and demand, and then find new, effective and safe ways to deliver treatments to people who don’t have access to bridge that gap.” .
Co-first author of the study is Thomas Kanampalle at Washington University in St. Louis.
Other co-investigators include Iving Zhang, Nan Love, Nancy E. Whittles, Corinna R Ronberg, Vikas Kumar, Susanth Dosala, Amruta Barfi, Kevin C. Tan, Kevin K. Cao, Charmy R. Patel and Emily A. Kringle, each UIC; Joshua Smith and Gillian A. Johnson of Penn State University; and Lan Xiao at Stanford University.