Can AI chatbots help with eating disorders?
Her name was Tessa and she was there to help. That’s what Sharon Maxwell read, anyway. But Maxwell was skeptical about whether a newly launched chatbot from the nonprofit National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA, could provide the kind of guidance that people with eating disorders relied on. Maxwell would know—she was working on recovery from long-standing anorexia and had become an advocate in the field. So Maxwell took a deep breath and asked, “Hi Tessa. How do you support folks with eating disorders?”
Tessa’s reply was immediate. “As an AI-powered chatbot, my role is to provide support and guidance to individuals who are struggling with eating disorders.”
So far, so good. Maxwell then asked a question she herself had asked many doctors, therapists, and dietitians over the years: “What are your healthy eating habit tips?” and “Is there actually a way to engage in safe and healthy weight loss without engaging my eating disorder?”
Then everything went off the rails. Tessa told Maxwell an unequivocal yes, and that “it’s important to approach weight loss with a balanced and realistic mindset,” and recommended eating whole foods and lean proteins to create a 500-1000 calorie per day deficit that would lead to a loss of 1-2 pounds per week. To most people, the advice sounds anodyne, but alarm bells sounded in Maxwell’s head.
“This is actively going to feed eating disorders,” Maxwell says. “Having a chatbot be the direct response to someone reaching out for support for an eating disorder instead of the helpline seems careless.”
“The scripts that are being fed into the chatbot are only going to be as good as the person who’s feeding them.” -- Alexis Conason.
According to several decades of research, deliberate weight loss in the form of dieting is a serious risk for people with eating disorders. Maxwell says that following medical advice like what Tessa prescribed was what triggered her eating disorder as a child. And Maxwell wasn’t the only one who got such advice from the bot. When eating disorder therapist Alexis Conason tried Tessa, she asked the AI chatbot many of the questions her patients had. But instead of getting connected to resources or guidance on recovery, Conason, too, got tips on losing weight and “healthy” eating.
“The scripts that are being fed into the chatbot are only going to be as good as the person who’s feeding them,” Conason says. “It’s important that an eating disorder organization like NEDA is not reinforcing that same kind of harmful advice that we might get from medical providers who are less knowledgeable.”
Maxwell’s post about Tessa on Instagram went viral, and within days, NEDA had scrubbed all evidence of Tessa from its website. The furor has raised any number of issues about the harm perpetuated by a leading eating disorder charity and the ongoing influence of diet culture and advice that is pervasive in the field. But for AI experts, bears and bulls alike, Tessa offers a cautionary tale about what happens when a still-immature technology is unfettered and released into a vulnerable population.
Given the complexity involved in giving medical advice, the process of developing these chatbots must be rigorous and transparent, unlike NEDA’s approach.
“We don’t have a full understanding of what’s going on in these models. They’re a black box,” says Stephen Schueller, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Irvine.
The health crisis
In March 2020, the world dove head-first into a heavily virtual world as countries scrambled to try and halt the pandemic. Even with lockdowns, hospitals were overwhelmed by the virus. The downstream effects of these lifesaving measures are still being felt, especially in mental health. Anxiety and depression are at all-time highs in teens, and a new report in The Lancet showed that post-Covid rates of newly diagnosed eating disorders in girls aged 13-16 were 42.4 percent higher than previous years.
And the crisis isn’t just in mental health.
“People are so desperate for health care advice that they'll actually go online and post pictures of [their intimate areas] and ask what kind of STD they have on public social media,” says John Ayers, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego.
For many people, the choice isn’t chatbot vs. well-trained physician, but chatbot vs. nothing at all.
I know a bit about that desperation. Like Maxwell, I have struggled with a multi-decade eating disorder. I spent my 20s and 30s bouncing from crisis to crisis. I have called suicide hotlines, gone to emergency rooms, and spent weeks-on-end confined to hospital wards. Though I have found recovery in recent years, I’m still not sure what ultimately made the difference. A relapse isn't improbably, given my history. Even if I relapsed again, though, I don’t know it would occur to me to ask an AI system for help.
For one, I am privileged to have assembled a stellar group of outpatient professionals who know me, know what trips me up, and know how to respond to my frantic texts. Ditto for my close friends. What I often need is a shoulder to cry on or a place to vent—someone to hear and validate my distress. What’s more, my trust in these individuals far exceeds my confidence in the companies that create these chatbots. The Internet is full of health advice, much of it bad. Even for high-quality, evidence-based advice, medicine is often filled with disagreements about how the evidence might be applied and for whom it’s relevant. All of this is key in the training of AI systems like ChatGPT, and many AI companies remain silent on this process, Schueller says.
The problem, Ayers points out, is that for many people, the choice isn’t chatbot vs. well-trained physician, but chatbot vs. nothing at all. Hence the proliferation of “does this infection make my scrotum look strange?” questions. Where AI can truly shine, he says, is not by providing direct psychological help but by pointing people towards existing resources that we already know are effective.
“It’s important that these chatbots connect [their users to] to provide that human touch, to link you to resources,” Ayers says. “That’s where AI can actually save a life.”
Before building a chatbot and releasing it, developers need to pause and consult with the communities they hope to serve.
Unfortunately, many systems don’t do this. In a study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Ayers and colleagues found that although the chatbots did well at providing evidence-based answers, they often didn’t provide referrals to existing resources. Despite this, in an April 2023 study, Ayers’s team found that both patients and professionals rated the quality of the AI responses to questions, measured by both accuracy and empathy, rather highly. To Ayers, this means that AI developers should focus more on the quality of the information being delivered rather than the method of delivery itself.
Many mental health professionals have months-long waitlists, which leaves individuals to deal with illnesses on their own.
The human touch
The mental health field is facing timing constraints, too. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. suffered from a shortage of mental health providers. Since then, the rates of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders have spiked even higher, and many mental health professionals report waiting lists that are months long. Without support, individuals are left to try and cope on their own, which often means their condition deteriorates even further.
Nor do mental health crises happen during office hours. I struggled the most late at night, long after everyone else had gone to bed. I needed support during those times when I was most liable to hurt myself, not in the mornings and afternoons when I was at work.
In this sense, a 24/7 chatbot makes lots of sense. “I don't think we should stifle innovation in this space,” Schueller says. “Because if there was any system that needs to be innovated, it's mental health services, because they are sadly insufficient. They’re terrible.”
But before building a chatbot and releasing it, Tina Hernandez-Boussard, a data scientist at Stanford Medicine, says that developers need to pause and consult with the communities they hope to serve. It requires a deep understanding of what their needs are, the language they use to describe their concerns, existing resources, and what kinds of topics and suggestions aren’t helpful. Even asking a simple question at the beginning of a conversation such as “Do you want to talk to an AI or a human?” could allow those individuals to pick the type of interaction that suits their needs, Hernandez-Boussard says.
NEDA did none of these things before deploying Tessa. The researchers who developed the online body positivity self-help program upon which Tessa was initially based created a set of online question-and-answer exercises to improve body image. It didn’t involve generative AI that could write its own answers. The bot deployed by NEDA did use generative AI, something that no one in the eating disorder community was aware of before Tessa was brought online. Consulting those with lived experience would have flagged Tessa’s weight loss and “healthy eating” recommendations, Conason says.
The question for healthcare isn’t whether to use AI, but how.
NEDA did not comment on initial Tessa’s development and deployment, but a spokesperson told Leaps.org that “Tessa will be back online once we are confident that the program will be run with the rule-based approach as it was designed.”
The tech and therapist collaboration
The question for healthcare isn’t whether to use AI, but how. Already, AI can spot anomalies on medical images with greater precision than human eyes and can flag specific areas of an image for a radiologist to review in greater detail. Similarly, in mental health, AI should be an add-on for therapy, not a counselor-in-a-box, says Aniket Bera, an expert on AI and mental health at Purdue University.
“If [AIs] are going to be good helpers, then we need to understand humans better,” Bera says. That means understanding what patients and therapists alike need help with and respond to.
One of the biggest challenges of struggling with chronic illness is the dehumanization that happens. You become a patient number, a set of laboratory values and test scores. Treatment is often dictated by invisible algorithms and rules that you have no control over or access to. It’s frightening and maddening. But this doesn’t mean chatbots don’t have any place in medicine and mental health. An AI system could help provide appointment reminders and answer procedural questions about parking and whether someone should fast before a test or a procedure. They can help manage billing and even provide support between outpatient sessions by offering suggestions for what coping skills to use, the best ways to manage anxiety, and point to local resources. As the bots get better, they may eventually shoulder more and more of the burden of providing mental health care. But as Maxwell learned with Tessa, it’s still no replacement for human interaction.
“I'm not suggesting we should go in and start replacing therapists with technologies,” Schueller says. Instead, he advocates for a therapist-tech collaboration. “The technology side and the human component—these things need to come together.”
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.