June 1, 2023

Wayne State to develop application to conduct automated motivational interviewing counseling focused on weight loss

A Wayne State University professor has received a grant of nearly $404,000 from the National Institute of Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health to focus on modern artificial intelligence technologies that could aid weight loss counseling. 

Alexander Kotov, Ph.D., associate professor of Computer Science in the College of Engineering, will lead a research study aiming to develop and test a Neural Agent for Obesity Motivational Interviewing, or NAOMI, an artificially intelligent conversational agent for automated motivational interviewing counseling with a focus on weight loss. NAOMI will be implemented as a mobile application and use cutting-edge computer science methods, including transformers, supervised policy learning and adversarial training.

April Idalski Carcone, Ph.D., MSW, associate professor, and Elizabeth Towner, Ph.D., assistant professor, both of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences in Wayne State’s School of Medicine, are co-investigators on the grant.

Dr. Carcone is a behavioral health researcher whose work leverages mixed methods approaches to developing and testing interventions to improve the health and well-being of children and young adults living with chronic illnesses, including obesity, diabetes, asthma and HIV. Dr. Carcone will leverage her Motivational Interviewing expertise in the development of NAOMI and will help facilitate the qualitative interviews with patients to assess the feasibility and usability of the agent for weight loss conversations.

Dr. Towner is a pediatric health psychologist with expertise in the treatment of obesity and the development of weight loss interventions. She is the research director for MetroNet, a family medicine practice research network. She will support this research as an expert in obesity and weight loss intervention, and assist with the recruitment of patients from MetroNet-affiliated practices. These patients will interact with NAOMI and provide feedback on their treatment experiences.

Dr. Kotov said Motivational Interviewing – a client-centered and directive approach to behavior change counseling – has proved effective for promoting and supporting long-term behavior change, including changes to lifestyle and diet that are needed to cope with obesity, one of the most significant medical and public health problems in the United States. However, there are major obstacles — including a shortage of counselors, long wait times and fear of judgment — that prevent widespread use of the technique.

“This project aims to circumvent barriers to health care providers’ adoption of motivational interviewing and lack of fidelity to motivational interviewing theory by practicing human counselors,” Dr. Kotov said. “In addition, we hope to mitigate the issues of limited access to counseling services and complement human counselors in the behavioral health care delivery model.”

Participants will interact with NAOMI and report their experience in an interview with a team member.

“This feedback will inform future development cycles,” Dr. Kotov said. “If successful, this project will result in the methods and techniques that can be easily adapted to other psychotherapeutic interventions besides Motivational Interviewing and conditions besides obesity. We are hopeful that modern AI technologies can have a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health.”

The project number for this award from the National Institute of Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health is R21NR020388.

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