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YOUR HEALTH: Mental wellness by mixing two therapies

Researchers are designing a digital therapy that combines art and animals in a therapy program for patients at home

CINCINNATI — Pet therapy has historically been used by patients who are struggling with mental health conditions, like depression or PTSD.

It also helps people battling a chronic illness like cancer. 

Art therapy helps people express feelings and emotions. 

Now, scientists are studying a program that uses both forms of therapy virtually for patients struggling with hearing loss.

For installation artist Sankhya Jejurikar, her health journey began in 2013 when doctors found an acoustic neuroma in her brain.

"It's a slow growing tumor. Fortunately it's benign, but it sits on these three nerves."

In 2021, Sankhya needed surgery to remove the tumor but she still feels the effects.

"I've lost complete hearing in my left ear. It is isolating, frustrating." 

Her doctor understood the extra burden it had on her patient.

"We're very quick as physicians to give anti-depressants to our patients or say, 'Okay, yes, yes, you're feeling sad. Here you go'," said Dr. Soma Sengupta, neuro-oncologist at the University of Cincinnati.

She introduced Sankhya to a fuzzy little electronic dog who is the first half of a scientific study on patient well-being for people with hearing loss.

"So, the robotic pets allow us to have that companionship without the burden of feeding, taking care of a pet or cleaning after a pet," explained Claudia Rebola, a University of Cincinnati researcher.

The second part involves art.

"When people make art, it tends to reduce their defenses," said psychologist and art therapist Meeera Rastogi.

So it begged a simple question.

"What if you combine these modalities and digitalize them?" asked said Dr. Sengupta.

The researchers designed a self-guided art therapy app. 

For 12 weeks, patients do their own art therapy, then answer questions about their mood.

Then half of the patients take home a robotic pup. 

The pets have "smart collars" sensors record the number and length of interactions. 

Researchers want to quantify how adding pets to the art increases well-being. 

They're making connections with a stroke of a hand, or a touch of a fingertip.

Dr. Sengupta says the art and robot pet therapy give patients tools to take personal control of their mental well-being. 

University of Cincinnati researchers are applying for funding to expand the trial and potentially increase the capabilities of the robotic pets.

Future robot companion care is possible

Ethics are an unanswered question when it comes to the future of companion robots. 

Replacing or supplementing human caregivers with robots could be detrimental to the person being cared for. 

For starters, human contact has been decreasing even when it involves other jobs that robots may start doing instead of humans. 

Adding caregiving duties to this may mean reducing seniors' level of human contact even further. 

Some people may also find it demeaning to be taken care of by a machine while others may find it better because there is no embarrassment during washing or helping out of bed as it is not a real human with feelings or judgments. 

Perspective is key when deciding if a robot companion is right for you or an elderly loved one.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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