Will, a 13-year-old from Wisconsin, lives with high-functioning Asperger’s and faces difficulties recognizing and managing his emotions. He doesn’t like to talk about emotions he perceives as negative, and becomes upset when he doesn’t meet the high standards he sets for himself. These oachhallenges have made it difficult for Will to thrive in social situations.
Karen immediately began researching strategies, as many as she could find, to help Will manage his emotions. She found a Social Thinking program, as well as ABA therapy, both of them important opportunities for Will to increase his “social batting average,” as Karen puts it.
However, Will soon became resistant to using the strategies offered by these programs. Cues to calm down through deep breathing, for example, tended to create more frustration and anger and did not decrease his swearing, frustration or oppositional behaviors. Despite his ongoing work with an ABA therapist and the Social Thinking program, his academics started to suffer and he sometimes had to leave the classroom. “He would miss class, and then miss homework, and it would circle out of control,” says Karen. …
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., but lack an ideal treatment. The current drugs, SSRIs and benzodiazepines, have many side effects. More recently developed treatments seek to block corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), the classic stress hormone that activates our “fight or flight” response; in people with anxiety, CRH gets activated at the wrong time or too intensely.
But in clinical trials, results have been disappointing: of the eight completed phase II and III trials of CRH antagonists for depression or anxiety, six have been published, with largely negative findings, says Joseph Majzoub, MD, of the Division of Endocrinology at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Rong Zhang, PhD, who works in Majzoub’s research lab, had a hunch that blocking CRH throughout the brain, as was done in these trials, isn’t the best approach. “Blocking CRH receptors all over the brain doesn’t work,” she says. “We think the effects work against each other somehow. It may be that CRH has different effects depending on where in the brain it is produced.”
Today in Molecular Psychiatry, Zhang, Majzoub and colleagues demonstrate that certain neurons in the hypothalamus play a central, previously unknown role in triggering anxiety. When they used genetic tricks to selectively remove the CRH gene from about 1,000 of these neurons in mice, the effect was startling — they erased the animals’ natural fears. …
Since we spoke with the founders of TriVox Health in 2014, their disease management program has taken off. The program began in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Developmental Medicine as a way to more efficiently collect information on children’s ADHD symptoms from parents and teachers. It is now a user-friendly, web-based platform for tracking multiple conditions, incorporating medication confirmation, side effects reporting, disease symptom surveys and quality of life measures.
Can a robotic talking bear have therapeutic value? “The Bear,” part of a New York Times video series called Robotica, offers a glimpse of Huggable’s potential when Beatrice Lipp, a child with a chronic medical condition, visits the hospital, nervous about what’s to come.
“We want to offer kids one more way of helping them to feel OK where they are in what’s otherwise a really stressful experience,” explains Dierdre Logan, PhD, director of Psychological Services for Pain Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Huggable, a creation of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group and the Boston Children’s Simulator Program, comes into Beatrice’s room to chat, play games like “I Spy” and tell jokes. The session is recorded on video, and a bracelet called a Q Sensor collects Beatrice’s physiologic data–changes in skin conductance, temperature and motion that may indicate distress. Researchers at Northeastern University are analyzing these data to gauge the robot’s effect. Eventually, Huggable will be able to react to the data and respond accordingly—offering relaxation exercises and guided imagery, for example, if a child remains anxious.
Currently, Huggable is voiced by Child Life staff, but the ultimate goal is for it to work autonomously. Beatrice is part of a 90-child study comparing Huggable, an ordinary teddy bear and a tablet Huggable image.
I admit: My immediate thought on seeing Huggable was that kids would immediately see him (her?) as a fake, but the bear’s robotic nature doesn’t seem to faze them. As Logan says in the video:
I think there’s a way of connecting with kids that’s different than what grownups have to offer. They have incredible imaginations. And they can really suspend disbelief. There can be a true relationship that develops between Huggable and a patient.