Photo Credit: courtesy, Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek
The experimental setup

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researchers found that a one-time, short session with a seal-like furry robot called PARO reduced pain, increased happiness and reduced oxytocin levels.

Human-to-human contact has been found to bolster mood and reduce pain in several previous studies. But what if regular human-to-human contact is not an option, as is the case these days, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? Could a furry social robot induce similar effects? Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek of the Department of Physical Therapy and her team set out to find out.

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Their findings were just published in Scientific Reports.

PARO is a Japanese-produced social robot that looks like a furry white seal. It makes seal-like noises and moves its head and flippers in response to being touched and spoken to.

Levy-Tzedek and her team discovered that a one-time interaction with PARO, which lasted less than an hour, did indeed improve mood and reduced mild and severe pain. When participants touched PARO, they experienced greater pain reduction than when it was simply present in the room with them.

Surprisingly, they also discovered lower levels of oxytocin in those who interacted with PARO than in the control group participants, who did not meet PARO at all. High oxytocin levels have been found in mothers playing with their children and between romantic partners, and has sometimes been called the “love hormone,” so a lower level of oxytocin is surprising. However, more recent studies have shown that outside of close relationships, oxytocin production is an indicator of stress and therefore a reduction could indicate relaxation.

“These findings offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being, which are particularly needed at this time, when social distancing is a crucial factor in public health,” says Dr. Levy-Tzedek.

The research was partially supported by the Helmsley Charitable Trust through the Agricultural, Biological and Cognitive Robotics Initiative and by the Marcus Endowment Fund, both at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Financial support was provided by the Rosetrees Trust, the Borten Family Foundation, and the Consolidated Anti-Aging Foundation grants. This research was also supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grants No. 535/16 and 2166/16), the Israel Pain Association, and received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 754340.

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