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ptsd study artificial intelligence technology

A study participant is interviewed by Ellie, an artificial character, to gather text data. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Gratch, USC Institute for Creative Technologies)

University of Alberta researchers have trained a machine learning model to identify people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with 80 percent accuracy by analyzing the text those people wrote. The model could one day serve as an accessible and inexpensive screening tool to support health professionals in detecting and diagnosing PTSD or other mental health disorders through telehealth platforms.

Jeff Sawalha

Jeff Sawalha

Russ Greiner

Russ Greiner

Psychiatry PhD candidate Jeff Sawalha, who led the project, performed a sentiment analysis of text from a dataset created by Jonathan Gratch at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Sentiment analysis involves taking a large body of data, such as the contents of a series of tweets, and categorizing them – for example, seeing how many are expressing positive thoughts and how many are expressing negative thoughts, explained Russ Greiner, professor in the Department of Computing Science and founding scientific director of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute.

“We wanted to strictly look at the sentiment analysis from this dataset to see if we could properly identify individuals with PTSD just using the emotional content of these interviews,” said Sawalha.

The text in the USC dataset was gathered through 250 semi-structured interviews conducted by an artificial character, Ellie, over video conferencing calls with 188 people without PTSD and 87 with PTSD.

Sawalha and his team were able to identify individuals with PTSD through scores indicating how often their speech featured mainly neutral or negative thoughts.

“This is in line with a lot of the literature around emotion and PTSD. Some people tend to be neutral, numbing their emotions and maybe not saying too much. And then there are others who express their negative emotions.”

The process is undoubtedly complex. For example, Greiner explained, even a simple phrase like “I didn’t hate that” could prove challenging to categorize. However, the fact that Sawalha was able to glean information about which individuals had PTSD from the text data alone opens the door to the possibility of applying similar models to other datasets with other mental health disorders in mind.

“Text data is so ubiquitous, it’s so available, you have so much of it,” Sawalha said. “From a machine learning perspective, with this much data, it may be better able to learn some of the intricate patterns that help differentiate people who have a particular mental illness.”

Next steps involve partnering with collaborators at the U of A to see whether integrating other data types, such as speech or motion, could help enrich the model. Additionally, some neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s as well as some mental health disorders like schizophrenia have a strong language component, Sawalha explained, making them another potential area to analyze.

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“Unlike an MRI that takes an experienced person to look at it, this is something people can do themselves. I think that’s the direction medicine is probably going, toward more screening tools,” said Greiner, who is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.

With PTSD rates rising as people experience a collective global trauma during the pandemic, Sawalha said tools that could help mental health professionals intervene earlier are critical.

“Having tools like this going forward could be beneficial in a post-pandemic world.”

| By Adrianna MacPherson

Adrianna is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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