A recent pilot study led by researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago suggests that artificial intelligence (AI) could be a valuable tool in the treatment of mental health conditions. The study examined the effects of an AI voice-based virtual coach, named Lumen, on patients undergoing behavioral therapy. The researchers discovered changes in patients’ brain activity and observed improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety following the use of Lumen.

The findings, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, provide promising evidence that virtual therapy using AI can help address the gaps in mental health care. These gaps often involve long waitlists and limited access to treatment, particularly for individuals from vulnerable communities. Dr. Olusola A. Ajilore, a professor of psychiatry at UIC and co-first author of the study, emphasized that while AI technology cannot replace traditional therapy, it can serve as an essential interim solution before individuals are able to seek treatment.

Lumen, developed by Dr. Ajilore and Dr. Jun Ma, the Beth and George Vitoux Professor of Medicine at UIC, along with collaborators from Washington University in St. Louis and Pennsylvania State University, operates as a skill within the Amazon Alexa application. The research team recruited over 60 patients for the clinical study, focusing on the effects of Lumen on mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as brain activity in areas associated with the benefits of problem-solving therapy.

During the study, two-thirds of the participants used Lumen for eight sessions of problem-solving therapy, while the remaining participants served as a control group with no intervention. After the intervention, the group using the Lumen app demonstrated decreased scores for depression, anxiety, and psychological distress compared to the control group. Additionally, the Lumen group exhibited improvements in problem-solving skills, which correlated with increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region linked to cognitive control. Encouraging outcomes were also observed for women and underrepresented populations.

Dr. Ma explained that the therapy provided by Lumen focuses on changing individuals’ problem-solving approaches and preventing emotional overwhelm. He described it as a pragmatic and patient-driven behavior therapy that aligns well with voice-based technology.

The researchers are currently conducting a larger trial that compares the use of Lumen with a control group on a waitlist, as well as patients receiving problem-solving therapy from human coaches. They emphasize that the virtual coach does not need to outperform a human therapist to address the urgent needs within the mental health system.

Dr. Ma highlighted the importance of viewing digital mental health services as a means to bridge the gap between supply and demand, rather than as replacements for human professionals. The goal is to find innovative, effective, and safe ways to deliver treatments to individuals who lack access, thus filling the existing gaps in mental health care.

The study’s co-first author is Thomas Kannampallil from Washington University in St. Louis. Other co-investigators include researchers from UIC, Pennsylvania State University, and Stanford University.


Source: Science Daily