May 25, 2023 – The growth of artificial intelligence has drawn praise as well as fear and skepticism. But researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago and their colleagues have found that their AI app appears to be useful in treating anxiety and depression. And they hope it can soon help shorten the long waiting list for treatment.
In a pilot learn, In a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that Lumen, a speech-based virtual AI coach for behavioral therapy, altered patients’ brain activity and said it caused improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“This is not a substitute [for a therapist] but could be a stopgap measure,” said Olusola A. Ajilore, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois Chicago and co-author of the study. The app ensures that people provide help as soon as possible after they have sought it.
At his school, Ajilore said the waiting list for therapy at the height of the pandemic was eight months. Depression and anxiety have increased since the pandemic began, with depression rising to about 32% among US adults by 2021 and more than 40 million with anxiety disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Numerous AI-powered mental health programs have sprung up in recent years, combining informatics and datasets to help solve problems, including Wysawhich the company claims has over 5 million users; replica, which aims to help people cope with stress; And mood mission, According to the developers, it is designed to help users overcome depression and anxiety.
A special feature of the new app is the evidence linking clinical responses to brain imaging findings, Ajilore said. Although many such apps have been developed for mental health, “there is currently a lack of high-quality clinical research on their therapeutic potential,” the researchers write.
Results of the pilot study
For the pilot study, 42 people with mild to moderate anxiety or depression used the app for eight sessions; another 21 were in the wait-list control group. The app developed by Ajilore and his colleagues acts as a skill in Amazon’s Alexa program.
Over the eight sessions over 12 weeks (four weekly, then four bi-weekly), the subjects in the study, a median age of 37 and 68% women, used Lumen via an iPad to combat their anxiety or depression using an approach that referred to as problem-solving treatment. All 63 patients underwent brain imaging at week 1 and week 16 to track differences in brain activity.
Lumen is patient-centric, with the voice coach acting as a guide to identify a problem, set a goal, find solutions, choose a solution, develop an action plan, implement it, and then evaluate it, the researchers said.
A typical session lasted about 12 minutes; In between, Lumen users conducted surveys and reviews. Those on the waitlist received text messages at similar intervals to the others to complete surveys and assessments. 81 percent of those using Lumen completed all eight sessions.
“A lot of the burden is on the patients,” Ajilore said. For example, they receive suggestions on how to deal with anxiety and it is up to them to select one or more suggestions and implement them.
The participants in the Lumen group had lower levels of depression and anxiety compared to the control group. The Lumen group had increased activity in the brain area associated with control of thinking skills — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — and improved problem-solving skills compared to those on the waitlist.
Now the researchers are recruiting 200 people with anxiety and depression to test the AI language trainer on a larger scale clinical study to examine the effects on anxiety and depression symptoms in more detail. The 200 people will be randomly assigned to a lumen group (of eight sessions over 12 weeks), face-to-face sessions over the same period, or a wait-list control group.
Ryan Wade, MD, a psychiatrist and director of addiction services at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT, treats many patients with anxiety and depression. He is familiar with the new study results and the AI, but was not part of the research.
He sees the virtual AI coach as a viable option to help people get the help they need during times of long waiting lists, but understands why some of his colleagues might hesitate. “A lot of our training is about building a relationship with a patient,” he said, doing it face-to-face.
“It won’t replace the therapist,” he said of the new technology, “but some of their work can be automated. This can make it easier for people to get started.” AI is good at finding solutions and solving problems – what he calls the routine or rational parts of therapy, he said. “If we work with it, I think we can find that it can be really effective.”