RIT and FDA test digital therapy/avatar to treat addiction, reduce intimate partner violence

Carlos Ortiz

A digital therapy developed at RIT is the subject of a clinical trial at Rochester Regional Chemical Dependency. The multidisciplinary study involves faculty, staff, and graduate students, including, in the front row, Rupa Kalahasthi, Cassandra Berbary, Linwei Wang, and Caroline Easton; and in the back row, Jillian Cook, Cory Crane, and Adam Smith.

Researchers from five colleges at Rochester Institute of Technology are testing a new way to deliver mental health therapy to people struggling with alcohol/drug addiction and aggressive behavior.

RIT is running a randomized clinical trial with the Food and Drug Administration to test the therapy platform “RITchCBT” as a tool for treating people whose substance use disorders have led to intimate partner violence (IPV). The National Institutes of Health is supporting the study. Total funding could reach $4.8 million pending milestones met and NIH approval to advance to the second phase of the award.

Addiction and abuse carry heavy costs, said Caroline Easton, RIT professor of behavioral health and lead researcher on the study. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, annual health care costs for alcohol and drug addiction reached $700 billion, and intimate partner violence reached $12.6 billion, she added.

“Substance use disorders and intimate partner violence are devastating to families and society,” Easton said. “The pandemic made IPV worse and underscored the need for digital technology development that can make behavioral health treatment more accessible.”

The NIH clinical trial will assess the feasibility of RITchCBT, an interactive digital platform developed at RIT and programmed to administer cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) via an avatar. The study will compare RITchCBT to human-led therapy sessions using the same content.

The RITchCBT platform and customizable avatar digitally extends Easton’s integrated CBT model for treating substance abuse and IPV among male offenders. RITchCBT is a self-guided program that teaches healthy behavior change and specific coping skills for triggers and withdrawal cravings.

The goal of this study is to show that RITchCBT is as effective as a human therapist at reducing substance use disorder symptoms, Easton said. The next phase of the project will focus on improving treatment outcomes.

“We’re not looking to replace the human therapist,” Easton said. “We’re looking for the tool to get outcomes as good as a human therapist. Then we can give the digital tool to clinicians to use in their practice or in the hospital setting to give them more therapeutic tools at their disposal.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety and depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and other behavioral health disorders. Digital platforms programmed to deliver CBT can help offset gaps in treatment that occur when a human therapist deviates from the treatment protocols. Recent studies show that “therapist drift” affects patients’ recovery, Easton said.

The first phase of the 12-week clinical trial will begin this summer. The study will randomly pair 40 male patients with RITchCBT or a human therapist at Rochester Regional Chemical Dependency. The clinic is part of the Rochester Regional Health system. After two years, the trial will randomize another 160 patients, Easton said. 

For nearly two decades, Easton’s research has integrated treatment for substance use/addiction and family violence/intimate partner violence in a 12-week clinically tested program. Her treatment model is the backbone of RITchCBT, which was developed by an evolving team of RIT faculty and students.

The NIH grant will fund graduate students from multiple colleges and promote the RIT & Rochester Regional Health Alliance, a partnership between the university and the health system that fostered RIT’s College of Health Sciences and Technology.

“This study has created a convergence of fields across campus with unique talents of different faculty members,” Easton said.

Meet the RIT team

RIT faculty contributing to the NIH study represent multiple colleges:

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