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Israeli study: Seal-like furry robot found to reduce pain and increase happiness

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Researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have found that a one-time, short session with a seal-like furry robot called PARO can reduce pain, increase happiness and reduce levels of ‘love hormone’ oxytocin

By ILANIT CHERNICK

As children, furry animal toys were our best friends and a source of comfort when feeling alone or sad.

Well, researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have found that a one-time, short session with a seal-like furry robot called PARO – not so different to the furry friends we loved as children – can reduce pain, increase happiness and reduce levels of ‘love hormone’ oxytocin.

Several recent studies have found that human-to-human contact bolsters mood and reduces pain in several. 

However, as COVID-19 surges around the world, human-to-human contact is not always available especially for those who live alone or far from family and friends.

This is what encouraged Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek of BGU’s Physical Therapy Department and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Nirit Geva to research whether or not a furry social robot could induce similar effects created by human-to-human interaction.

The study, which was run by Geva, used PARO, a Japanese-produced social robot that looks like a furry white seal that makes seal-like noises and moves its head and flippers in response to being touched and spoken to.

Speaking to IsraelNewsStand, Levy-Tzedek said that even before COVID-19 hit, “we, as a society, have been experiencing growing levels of loneliness, and many older adults do not have frequent social interactions that include pleasant touch, which has been shown to reduce stress and pain.” 

She highlighted that pets can also provide relief from stress and pain, but not everyone can have one, “for a variety of reasons (including allergies, difficulties taking care of the animals on a daily basis, or living in an assisted-living facility). We set out to study whether a robotic pet can help relieve pain, as a (hopefully temporary) supplement at times when social interactions are limited.”

Levy-Tzedek and her team discovered that a one-time interaction with PARO, which lasted less than an hour, did indeed improve mood and reduced mild and severe pain. 

When participants touched PARO, they experienced greater pain reduction than when it was simply present in the room with them.

 Dr. Nirit Geva, the postdoctoral fellow who ran the study.
(Photo credits: Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek/BGU)

Asked why, from a physiological perspective the researchers saw such results, Levy-Tzedek explained that it was because of the sense of touch.

“Touch – but not just any touch – is effective in reducing pain perception,” she stressed. “It has to be a welcome, meaningful, positive touch. We hypothesize that the reason we see such a strong effect of touching PARO is that participants felt they formed a social connection with it, and that facilitated the reduction in pain perception. Indeed, those who reported they were able to connect well with the robotic seal experienced a greater reduction in pain.”

The researchers also discovered lower levels of oxytocin in those who interacted with PARO than in the control group participants, who did not meet PARO at all. 

“High oxytocin levels have been found in mothers playing with their children and between romantic partners, and has sometimes been called the ‘love hormone,’ so a lower level of oxytocin is surprising,” they said. 

But according to more recent studies, they pointed out that outside of close relationships, oxytocin production is an indicator of stress “and therefore a reduction could indicate relaxation.”

Addressing how this could change the face of pain management in the future, Levy-Tzedek told IsraelNewsStand that PARO can be used “to help manage pain and improve emotional state, and thus help improve the quality of life. 

“These findings are particularly relevant now, during COVID-19, when we are instructed to keep a social distance from other people, including close ones, and there is a reduction in the availability of close affective touch,” she explained. “A social robot may help in this period – not as a permanent solution, but as a temporary one.” 

She concluded that the “findings offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being, which are particularly needed at this time, when social distancing is a crucial factor in public health.”

Their research was just published in Peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.

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