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Technology Showcased to Ease Mental Health Interventions

Mary Czerwinski at AAAS meeting, 4 Mar. 2023

Mary Czerwinski of Microsoft Research, at AAAS meeting, 4 Mar. 2023 (A. Kotok)

4 May 2023. A group of industry and academic researchers at a scientific meeting displayed advances in technology to improve access to therapy for people with mental disorders. The panel discussed their work today at a session of the American Association for Advancement of Science or AAAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The session called “Improving Mental Health and Supporting Self-Regulation With Technology” presented the work of three researchers working in engineering, psychiatry, data science, and computer science, scaled to operate in mobile phones and apps. The panel focused on emotional self-regulation, the ability of people to sense, understand, and deal with their anxieties or emotions in productive ways. Some individuals with cognitive or psychiatric disorders find it difficult to comprehend or interpret their anxiety and fears, and need help from specialists to learn or rediscover these skills.

Tanzeem Choudhury, professor of computing and information sciences at Cornell Tech in New York, presented work in her People-Aware Computing Lab on making mobile technologies for self-regulation as unobtrusive and effortless as possible, to ease barriers when needed by people in crisis. One of those devices is EmotionCheck, a device worn like a watch that produces subtle vibrations on the wrist simulating heartbeats. Changing these signals, says Choudhury, can induce changes in self-perceptions and anxiety levels, as well as cognitive performance, by altering the wearer’s perceived heart rate.

Other technologies in development by Choudhury and colleagues use heart-rate biofeedback to help control alcohol cravings as well as monitor and influence breathing rate through a sensor mounted on web cam. Another wearable device simulates stroking or affective touching to help relieve anxieties. Choudhury is also a senor vice-president for digital health at Optum Labs, part of United Health Group, and co-founded the company HealthRhythms in New York that applies machine learning algorithms and analytics to provide personalized mental health interventions.

Therapy for people with suicidal tendencies

Mary Czerwinski, a researcher at Microsoft in Kirkland, Washington that leads the company’s Human Understanding and Empathy group, described her team’s project with dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy to help people deal with intense emotions. In this case, the work applies DBT to therapy for people with suicidal tendencies, with the goal of making DBT available via smartphones. Mobile apps, says Czerwinski, are able to reduce financial and time barriers to therapy and boost engagement by users, although some apps in this field are not based on research evidence.

The group’s experimental app puts a DBT expert on a client’s phone, with the user conversing with the therapist. Tests of the app show users exhibit at least some improvement, but with help delivered “in the moment,” says Czerwinski, or at the time of crisis, more successful. She notes performance of the app is influenced by individual characteristics, and people more resistant to therapy with a live therapist also less likely to respond to treatments with the mobile app.

Shrikanth Narayanan, professor of electrical and computing engineering at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, reported on research in his lab that focuses on human-centered signal and information processing. Narayanan says his group studies “engineering approaches to illuminate human traits, states, and behaviors,” with much of the lab’s work involving screening and diagnostics, as well as computational analysis of speech to track serious mental illness.

Narayanan says developers of mental health technology need to build systems with “trustworthy human-centered machine intelligence.” He notes these technologies need to address issues of inclusiveness, safety, and privacy, and build in understanding of variability across different contexts.

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