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.”
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.