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Integrating socially assistive robots into mental healthcare interventions: Applications and recommendations for expanded use Part 5

See: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


Socially assistive robotics in mental healthcare

  • Although it’s a relatively new field, SAR has already found exciting apps in mental healthcare.
  • Often the case with an emerging area, the research on SAR apps in mental health is characterized by relatively small sample sizes (e.g., N typically <50, which is small by RCT standards) and simple methodological approaches (e.g., lack of adequate comparison conditions and use of pre-posttest designs).
  • Even with limitations, SAR research has already been conducted for a variety of mental health concerns (e.g. dementia, depressed mood, autism spectrum disorder) and with a diverse group of patients (e.g., young children and elderly).
  • SAR’s have already served in a variety of clinically relevant roles.



  • One of the more commonly employed functions.
  • SAR systems function in a way that is analogous to a trained therapy animal (e.g., a therapy dog).
  • Unfortunately, there are practical concerns with bringing live animals into clinical settings (e.g., therapy offices, hospitals and long-term care facilities) including issues related to animal welfare, patient allergies, and risk of illness or infection.
  • Socially assistive robots are seen as a way of harnessing some of the clinical benefits associated with animal-assisted interventions while avoiding the challenges inherent in work involving live animals.
  • Although a wide range of pet-like robots currently exist, most of this work has focus on Paro, a robot designed to look like a baby harp seal, and Aibo a small robotic dog.


Paro Robot – Source


Aibo Robot – Source


  • Many of the studies examining socially assistive robots in the role of companion have focused on elderly patients, many of whom were identified with having dementia or were at high-risk for depression.
  • The benefits for the use of SAR systems in a companion role are encouraging.
  • Participants in a pilot and case studies generally report positive experiences and appear engaged during interactions with the robots.
  • In terms of clinically relevant changes noted during and after interactions with robots, multiple studies have noted improved mood and decreased self-reported feelings of depression following the introduction of a socially assistive robot into a long-term care facility for the elderly.
  • Patients have also been noted to spend increased time in public areas and around other patients and staff members after the robots were introduced.
  • Reductions in physiological stress levels (as measured by salivary and urinary hormones) have been noted after interactions with a socially assistive robot.
  • This set of findings in case studies and pilot research indicates that there may be an array of psychological benefits of SAR in elderly populations (e.g., improved mood and stress reduction) and additional more rigorous evaluation is warranted.



  • Published RCTs also documented the benefits observed in smaller-scale studies.
  • In a recent RCT with elderly adults living in a nursing home or hospital facility, participants who regularly interacted with Paro experienced a significant reduction in self-reported loneliness while their peers who were assigned to recreational activities reported no change in these feelings.
  • The setting in which this study was conducted also received regular visits from a therapy dog, allowing comparisons between participants’ behaviour during interactions with Paro and their behaviour during interactions with the facility’s dog.
  • People talked to and touched Paro significantly more than the resident dog.
  • Paro seemed to encourage increased interaction among the study participants.
  • More residents were involved in the discussion about Paro and more overall conversation occurred relative to the conversation about the dog.



  • Another recent RCT involving Paro suggests that patients with dementia experienced other mental health benefits as a result of interacting with the robot.
  • In the study, a randomized crossover design involved elderly patients with mid- to late-stage dementia engaging in five weeks of interactions with Paro and five weeks of a control condition (a reading activity). Participants reported an improved quality of life and increased pleasure following their interactions with Paro.
  • The results were so encouraging that the same team of researchers is now working on a larger-scale RCT using Paro.




  • Positive findings aren’t limited to Paro, another small trial that included Aibo had residents at 3 different long-term care facilities randomized into 3 treatment groups: weekly interaction with Aibo, weekly interaction with a trained therapy dog, or no interactions with a robotic or therapy dog.
  • At the end of the program, residents in the robot and therapy dog conditions both reported significant reductions in self-reported loneliness compared to residents in the control conditions.
  • The residents in the two active intervention conditions were no different from each other in terms of self-reported loneliness and in terms of attachment to the dogs (living or robotic), indicating that the robotic dog was associated with changes similar to those observed after interactions with a trained therapy animal.
  • These studies suggest two very important findings:
    • First, socially assistive robots can be integrated into treatment settings (e.g., hospitals and long-term care facilities) for use with clinical populations.
    • Second, there appear to be positive clinical outcomes associated with the use of these robots.
  • Positive responses have also been observed in staff members working in facilities that use SAR systems with patients.
  • Stress levels of nursing staff at facilities that introduced SARs were lower after the robot was introduced compared to their levels before the program started.
    • Ex. during the course of a 5 week program with Paro, staff members’ self-reported indicators of ‘burnout’ decreased, suggesting that the staff stress levels were reduced following the introduction of the robot.
  • These findings are hypothesized to be the result of positive changes observed in the patients at the facility.
  • Elderly residents in this facility reported significantly improved mood after interactions with the robot, a pattern that was maintained over the course of the program’s 5 week duration.
  • The positive mood changes experienced by the residents and the time spent engaged in activities with the robot are believed to have decreased the burden placed on that staff, therefore reducing their stress levels.
  • Given these findings, applications to clinical populations of individuals experiencing higher levels of mood disturbance and stress are warranted because of the potential psychological benefits to patients and to their caregivers.







2 thoughts on “Integrating socially assistive robots into mental healthcare interventions: Applications and recommendations for expanded use Part 5

  1. This is certainly a fascinating topic and I am very impressed by the detail here. Are you reading all these articles or are you paraphrasing from one article? Either is fine but I am just trying to figure out the process you are using and whether the bulleted list represents your own notes/thoughts or ones taken from another paper. Well done 🙂


    1. its a mix of both XD if I don’t understand the exact english they use I will change the sentence structure to something I can easily come back and understand. Most of it is going through and if its something I like I write it. I really love to research but note taking has never been one of my fortes so I tend to just read through something, bullet point it and then go over the posts and organize into categories in my one note file which I will then eventually post back to the blog.


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