In a research project funded by the Daimler and Benz Foundation, psychologists are investigating whether breathing robots can alleviate sleep problems and overexcitation in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. The aim is to test and further develop measures for robot-assisted therapy. The project “Breathing robot interventions for alleviating sleep problems and overexcitation” is headed by Prof. Dr. Annett Lotzin from the Department of Psychology at the MSH Medical School Hamburg.
Around a third of the population experience a traumatic event at least once in their life – an accident, rape, or mistreatment. As a consequence, one in ten affected persons develops post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers from elevated stress levels, overexcitation, and sleep disorders. To improve these patients’ quality of life, the psychotherapeutic measures used include techniques for reducing breathing rate. The calmer breathing rhythm activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn leads to greater relaxation in the persons affected – an effect that could also be achieved by means of breathing robots.
While breathing robots have not yet been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, they have been developed to alleviate sleep problems in otherwise healthy persons. The robot simulates human breathing and reduces the users’ breathing rate to generate the desired relaxation effects and improve the quality of sleep. Initial pilot studies have shown that healthy subjects respond well to robotic breathing and adjust their breathing patterns accordingly. Their sleep quality improves.
The same effect is expected in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. In this study funded by the Daimler and Benz Foundation, the feasibility and effectiveness of the “Somnox 2” breathing robot in alleviating sleep problems and overexcitation in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder is now being investigated for the first time. A total of 30 people, randomly assigned to either an experimental or a control group, are participating in the study. Over a period of four weeks, participants in the experimental group are using the breathing robot before going to bed, while individuals in the control group use a non-breathing robot.
All participants are fitted with a wrist monitor that collects physiological data, such as heart rate and skin conductance. Each morning, on awakening, their perceived quality of sleep is documented. In the course of targeted interviews, the scientists ask them about existing sleep problems and symptoms of their post-traumatic stress disorder. The study also records how often the patients use the robot and how satisfied they are with it.
If initial findings suggest that the breathing robot has a positive effect on post-traumatic stress disorder, this new approach can be further investigated in a large-scale study with a larger number of patients. In the long term, a breathing robot could be used to supplement psychotherapy and to bridge over waiting periods prior to the beginning of therapy. Robotic systems could also prove helpful for patients with anxiety disorders.