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Wearable Soft Robot Helps People Scared of Injections



Image: University of Tsukuba

A team of researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan has developed a hand-held soft robot that can help patients who are scared of certain medical procedures, such as injections. The new development is one more step towards creating robots as tech companions just like smartphones. 

The new study was published in Scientific Reports

Solutions for Fear and Anxiety of Needles

Many people are afraid of needles, and this became even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. This fear can lead to reduced vaccination rates, and while there have been many studies carried out involving patient anxiety and pain during medical procedures, they haven’t led to any reliable solutions to help patients. 

The team of researchers constructed a wearable soft robot that patients can use during treatments. When the participants wore the robot, they experienced less pain in tests when compared to those who did not wear it. 

Professor Fumihide Tanaka is senior author of the research. 

“Our results suggest that the use of wearable soft robots may reduce fear as well as alleviate the perception of pain during medical treatments, including vaccinations,” Professor Tanaka says. 

The soft robot is covered in fur and referred to as “Reliebo” by the scientists. It was designed to be attached to the participant’s hand. It consists of small airbags that can inflate in response to hand movements. 

Testing the Robot’s Effectiveness

The team tested the robot’s effectiveness under different conditions based on the clenching of the participant’s hand. Painful thermal stimulus was then applied to the other arm that did not have the robot. 

During the testing, the team measured levels of oxytocin and cortisol, both of which are biomarkers for stress. Subjective pain ratings were also recorded with an assessment scale, and the team gave a survey test to evaluate the patients’ fear of injections and psychological state both before and after the experiments. 

The researchers found that by holding the robot, the patients had a better experience regardless of the experimental conditions. They speculated that the feelings of well-being often created by human touch could be activated by the robot. 

“It is well known that interpersonal touch can reduce pain and fear, and we believe that this effect can be achieved even with nonliving soft robots,” Professor Tanaka says. 

The new robot could be useful when there is no human contact, which was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team will now explore other versions of the robot, such as one that could use a controlled gaze or augmented reality (AR) to establish a connection with the patient.

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.