UC scientists study how robotic dogs, art-therapy app help depression and other maladies

The dogs can lift moods, build social connections, and snuggle during movies

At a time the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching mental-health providers too thin, causing weeks or months of waits for patients, University of Cincinnati researchers are studying how new technologies can help, when therapists can’t be there.

One technology they’re examining is the Joy for All brand robotic dogs that sell for about $129. Another is an art-therapy app the UC team developed to help people who can’t get that help in person, but instead can do so remotely and then upload their artworks.

Meera Rastogi, a psychologist and art therapist at UC’s Clermont College, helped create prompts for an app an interdisciplinary UC team developed to help with art therapy.

A Youtube video showing the dogs can be found here: https://bit.ly/3Hvhg9W .

Part of the study “is to see how art therapy can decrease people’s levels of depression and improve their overall quality of life,” Rastogi said. So patients will use art-therapy through an app, and see how the electronic art exercises help.

Some patients in the study will use only the art therapy app, while the others will have both the art therapy and the robotic dogs.

For the study, researchers are looking for a very specific type of participant: People with vestibular schwannoma, or acoustic neuromas, which are tumors on nerves connecting the inner ear with the brain. They often have their tumors removed, and often lose hearing and suffer balance issues.

By choosing those people as subjects, researchers have an easy-to-diagnose condition, adding fewer variables to patient diagnoses, said Dr. Soma Sengupta, associate director of UC’s Brain Tumor Center. The condition often leads to depression.

Furry fake friends

The mechanical mutts, which resemble small Golden Retrievers, come in.

“I have adopted some of them, and it’s really amazing, the companionship that they offer in the sense that you feel the presence of this entity in your environment,” said Claudia Rebola, director of a new center that focuses on innovation in the area of health and wellbeing at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP).

“And while you know it’s an animal robotic agent — it’s not a real dog — you attach feelings to it, in terms of routines, and interactions, and you expect a bark in response to, let’s say I turn on the lights, and then the dog barks, like saying, ‘hello.’ So you quickly develop a sense of presence with these robots in your life.”

The dogs and other pets have expressive eyes. They can bark, lick, nuzzle and help lift spirits of people who are isolated, possibly those with long-term COVID-19 symptoms, people with traumatic brain injuries or recovering from strokes.

Can help elders, others

Rebola said the electronic pets can brighten the lives of the elderly, just as they do children.

“It’s incredible to see how older adults adopt these pets, how they take care of them, they buy food for them, they put a bed by their beds, and they go out more often because they’re wanting to show off their pet,” Rebola said. “Their pet becomes a social connector. People say, ‘Oh, look at that pet!’ And they’re more interactive.”

Yet the pets don’t need to be fed or walked, although some like to do that, too.

During the study, the dogs wear special “smart bandanas” a UC team designed so researchers can track how often and how long they interact with the pets. The researchers emphasize the bandanas are not a Big Brother device that lets them watch their subjects, but only tells them how often and how long a patient is interacting with the dog.

Subjects, who only need to visit UC at the start of the study, can live far from campus because only an initial visit for training about the art-therapy app is needed. People interested in joining the study can call Jamie Denlinger in the brain tumor center at 513-675-9656.

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