Machine minds: can AI play a role in mental health therapy? – Irish Times, August 23 2018

A welcome conversation surrounding mental health has arisen but as more people make the decision to reach out, too few find a supportive hand.

Not a week passes without a report on Ireland’s mental health system, where lengthy waiting lists, staff shortages and inadequate facilities are the rule rather than the exception. Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health Jim Daly recently announced plans to pilot mental health “web therapy”; signalling a growing recognition of the need for novel approaches.

The capabilities of technology in the mental health sphere continue to flourish and developing therapeutic applications based upon systems driven by artificial intelligence (AI), particularly chatbots, is one arena that’s rapidly expanding. Yet, if you needed to open up, would you reach out to a robot?

Bot benefits

While not specifically focused on AI, a study from the Applied Research for Connected Health (Arch) centre at UCD shows 94 per cent of Irish adults surveyed would be willing to engage with connected mental health technology.

Study co-author Dr Louise Rooney, a postdoctoral research fellow at Arch, says AI-based systems with a research and a patient-centred focus could be beneficial.

“I don’t think AI is the answer to everything or that it could fully replace therapy intervention but I think there’s a place for it at every juncture through the process of treatment; from checking in, to remote monitoring, even down to people getting information,” she says.

The latest Mental Health Commission report shows waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services can reach 15 months. Rooney believes AI-based therapy could be particularly useful for young people who “respond very well to connected mental health technology”. The anonymity of such platforms could also break down barriers for men, who are less likely to seek help than women.

Prof Paul Walsh from Cork Institute of Technology’s department of computer science feels that AI-driven tools can “improve the accessibility to mental health services” but won’t fully replace human therapy.

“For those who are vulnerable and need help late at night, there’s evidence to show [therapy chatbots using AI and NLP] can be an effective way of calming people,” says Walsh, who is currently researching how to build software and machine learning systems for people with cognitive disorders. “If someone’s worried or stressed and needs immediate feedback, it’s possible to give real-time response and support without visiting a therapist.”

Professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dr Brendan Kelly says AI-based platforms such as chatbots can help people to take control of their wellbeing in a positive manner.

“They can help people to take the first step into an arena that may be scary for them but I feel there will come a point that this is combined with, or replaced by, a real therapist,” adds the consultant psychiatrist based at TallaghtHospital.

Privacy concerns

Using AI-driven mental health therapy doesn’t come without concerns, one being privacy.

“Clearly it’s a very important issue and people shouldn’t use something that compromises their privacy but it’s not a deal-breaker,” says Kelly. “There are ways to ensure privacy which must be done but [fears and challenges] shouldn’t sink the boat.”

Being completely transparent with users about data collection and storage is key, Rooney adds.

Whether AI can determine someone’s ability to consent to therapy is another potential caveat raised by Rooney. However, she feels that forming “watertight legislation” for this technology and ensuring it’s backed by research can help to overcome this and other potential pitfalls.

While most current tools in this field focus on mental wellbeing and not severe problems, Walsh raises the potential of false negatives should AI decide somebody has a chronic illness. To avoid this, it’s important to keep a human in the loop.

“Many machine-learning systems are really hard to analyse to see how they make these judgements,” he adds. “We’re working on ways to try to make it more amenable to inspection.”

As potentially anybody can engineer a system, Walsh recommends avoiding anything without a “vast paper trail” of evidence.

“These will have to go through rigorous clinical trials,” he says. “We need policing and enforcement for anything making medical claims.”

Humans could become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case with Eliza, a chatbot developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. However, Walsh doubts they will ever be as addictive or as great a threat as things like online gambling.

While the sentiment that AI-based therapy will assist rather than replace human therapy is quite universal, so is the view it can have a great impact.

“Achieving optimum mental health involves being open to all different ingredients, mixing it up and making a cake. AI can be part of that,” says Rooney.

If well regulated, Walsh says AI can augment humans in terms of treating people.

“I’m hopeful that benefits would be accentuated and the negatives or risks could be managed,” says Kelly. “The fact that it’s difficult and complex doesn’t mean we should shy away, just that we must think how best to capture the benefits of this technology.”

Brains behind the bots

Stanford psychologist and UCD PhD graduate Dr Alison Darcy is the brains behind Woebot: a chatbot combining artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioural therapy for mental health management.

“The goal is to make mental health radically accessible. Accessibility goes beyond the regular logistical things like trying to get an appointment,” explains the Dublin native, who conducted a randomised control trial of Woebot before launching. “It also includes things like whether it can be meaningfully integrated into everyday life.”

Darcy is clear that Woebot isn’t a replacement for human therapy, nor will he attempt to diagnose. In the interest of privacy, all data collected is treated as if users are in a clinical study.

Not intended for severe mental illness, Woebot is clear about what he can do. If he detects someone in crisis, Woebot declares the situation is beyond his reach and provides helplines and a link to a clinically-proven suicide-prevention app.

Originally from Wexford, Máirín Reid has also harnessed the capabilities of AI in the mental health sphere through Cogniant. Founded in Singapore with business partner Neeraj Kothari, it links existing clinicians and patients to allow for non-intrusive patient monitoring between sessions.

It’s currently being utilised by public health providers in Singapore with the aim of preventing relapses and aiding efficiency for human therapists. As Cogniant is recommended to users by human therapists, decisions on consent capabilities are formed by humans.

“Our on-boarding process is very clinically-driven,” says Reid. “We’re not there to replace, but to complement.”

While not intended for high-risk patients, Cogniant has an escalation process that connects any highly-distressed users to their therapist and provides supports. There’s also a great emphasis on privacy and being transparent from the offset.

“Clinicians are saying it drives efficiency and they can treat patients more effectively. Patients find it’s non-intrusive and not judgmental in any form.”

(First published by the Irish Times on August 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/machine-minds-can-ai-play-a-role-in-mental-health-therapy-1.3598546)

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Would you trust a robot with your mind? – Asian Scientist, August 3 2018

When it comes to allowing others inside our heads, most of us only crack open the door for a select few, likely close family members or trusted psychologists. But if you were really struggling, would you consider sharing your innermost thoughts with a robot?

Robot therapists aren’t as far-fetched as you might think. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed ELIZA, an early chatbot that could emulate the conversations of a psychotherapist. Since then, many increasingly sophisticated applications bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the mental health realm have emerged.

The brainchild of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot combines machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to assess users’ moods and offer them appropriate cognitive behavioral therapy. Emotionally intelligent chatbot Wysa, developed by Indian entrepreneurs Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, uses AI and NLP techniques to track users’ emotions and act as their virtual mental wellness coach. Singapore-born Cogniant integrates AI technology with face-to-face therapy and aims to prevent mental illness relapses by monitoring existing patients and assisting them with therapy goals.

AI and mental health: what are the risks?

In 2018, an estimated 340 million people in Asia will require mental health services. With professional help shortages, rural isolation, high costs and stigma being the main obstacles to treatment, AI-centered mental health innovations could be particularly pertinent in the region. Yet, could involving AI in something as potentially delicate as mental health pose any threat?

Given that AI is currently used for mental health diagnostics and wellness coaching rather than treatment, Professor Pascale Fung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says privacy is the main concern.

“For AI to do a good job, it needs access to patient records, past history and family medical knowledge. Security and safety of this data is very important. There are concerns about AI being hacked or data being stolen for other purposes,” she says. “On the other hand, that’s something we should be worried about when dealing with patient records anyway.”

Indeed, researchers have noted that the misuse of sensitive information shared between a patient and AI can have significant consequences, for both the user and the profession’s integrity. To avoid distrust, it’s important for developers to fully disclose data policies to users from the beginning, says Mr. Neeraj Kothari, co-founder of Cogniant. He says that users can then make an informed decision about what they share.

“We have signed an agreement to say we won’t sell data to a third party,” he adds. “The best way we can progress is to demonstrate through action that we are here to help, not to harm.”

Another risk is that humans could potentially become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case for many of ELIZA’s ‘patients,’ who believed that they were truly conversing with a human. This led to the coining of the phrase ‘the ELIZA effect,’ which describes the tendency of people to assume computer behaviors are equivalent to human behaviors. However, while acknowledging the need for more research in this area, Fung doesn’t believe this problem is unique to AI—people also become attached to devices such as mobile phones and television sets, she says.

“In every generation, there have always been concerns with new technology. When it becomes obsessive, people go to professionals for help.”

People may also joke with or lie to AI, but such instances can be minimized through the use of deception detection techniques like facial recognition, says Kothari.

“In general, if AI is designed for the benefit of patients and is non-judgmental and non-intrusive, there will be no reason to lie to the AI.”

The possibility of deception has more to do with human responsibility than technological downfalls, adds Fung.

“[AI] is a tool and what people decide to do with it is up to humans.”

Complementing, not replacing

Most researchers in the field acknowledge that AI is not a therapist replacement, but believe that it can be a supporting tool. Professor Zhu Tingshao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, for example, developed an AI-based system currently integrated into Weibo that recognizes people who express suicidal thoughts; subsequently, it sends them hotline numbers and messages of support. While the researchers can’t determine if people subsequently seek help, Zhu says the technology is still a proactive step towards suicide prevention.

“Right now when it comes to suicide intervention, we need the [suicidal] people to do the contacting themselves. [But] few people with a problem want to actively ask for help,” says Zhu, who adds that the tool has received positive feedback so far. “We cannot take the place of psychologists or counselling professionals, but we can help people know their mental health status and, if needed, provide some help in time [to prevent suicide].”

Ms. Bhairavi Prakash, founder of The Mithra Trust, an Indian organization that runs wellbeing initiatives combining technology and community engagement, believes that AI can be useful for promoting wellness. However, she too doesn’t think that it can provide complete treatment, especially for severe mental illness. Attempting to apply it to such cases could be dangerous, and should not be attempted until the technology is more sophisticated, she says.

“You don’t know if AI is triggering the person, you can’t see their facial reactions,” says the work and organizational psychologist. “If someone is delusional or hallucinating and talking to the AI, it won’t know how much is real.”

Legislation also needs to catch up before AI is assigned more tasks, adds Prakash. For example, human psychologists may be required by law to notify the authorities if a patient shows signs of wanting to harm others, but it’s unclear how such cases should be handled by AI.

Fung echoes the need for clearer legislation, saying that humans must still remain in the loop for important decisions such as medication prescriptions.

“Machines aren’t perfect. Humans aren’t either, but we do have laws or regulations [to deal with] human error or medical accidents. We don’t really have very good regulations for machine error.”

In the future, Fung envisions AI helping to create better personalized treatment plans, while Zhu says it will make mental health services more efficient. Prakash feels AI-based tools will encourage people to make the initial step in seeking help.

“In conversations people have with [AI], they are so open because there is zero judgment. They can talk about anything. That is extremely liberating and great for mental wellness.”

(First published by Asian Scientist on August 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/08/features/artificial-intelligence-mental-health/)

An introvert’s survival guide to the workplace – Irish Times, March 20 2018

Do you dread those morning brainstorm meetings, avoid small talk by the coffee machine at all costs, or simply feel drained by the frenzied office environment?

You probably don’t need a personality assessment to figure out whether you’re an introvert or not, but navigating your way through the contemporary workplace may require some figuring out.

We spoke to the experts about how introverts can cope with the social pressures of the 9-5.

Know your worth

Since its 2012 release, Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking has been credited with championing the essential role of introverts in society. In the New York Times bestseller, the author regularly refers to some of the world’s most influential people including Charles DarwinRosa Parks and Gandhi.

One thing they had in common? They were all introverts.

Co-founder of Irish remote jobs hub Abodoo. com Vanessa Tierney says employers are now recognising the importance of having a diverse workforce, one that balances the outspoken folk with the quieter, deep thinkers. “With the tech revolution, we have discovered that introverts can create amazing businesses,” she says. “The workplace is becoming more of a balanced field.”

Kevin QuigleyResearch and Innovation Psychologist at Seven Psychology at Work, says that people have no reason to believe that being an introvert is a bad thing. He refers to what are known as the five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. “Research is clear, that however high you are on the extroversion scale, it doesn’t affect work performance and this is true across all sectors. Conscientiousness and openness are important. They predict success.”

Find your niche

While it’s impossible to love every aspect of work, dreading each day because the environment doesn’t suit your personality is a waste of time for you and your employer. Instead of trying to mould yourself into a top salesperson, take the time to recognise your personal strengths, preferences and work goals.

“If you’re an introvert, it’s important to be aware of it. Different personalities are more naturally suited to different roles,” explains Quigley, who adds that finding a job that suits your personality is not only important for productivity, but for mental wellbeing.

“We talk about bringing the whole self to work. This can be difficult if the role is not a fit with your personality. You can pretend for a while, but over an extended period of time, it can be very draining.”

Take time out

In her book, Cain notes the difference between a shy person and an introvert. While a shy person may avoid social interactions, an introvert can be good socially, but becomes overly stimulated with too much socialisation.

“One of the challenges for introverts is that they prefer less stimulation than extroverts. Open plan offices can be fine for them, but recharging their batteries and recovering from this kind of environment will take some time,” explains associate professor in Organisational Psychology at DCU, Dr Janine Bosak. “Getting the opportunity to break out of that environment and find a quiet corner is critical during the day. Research in occupational health psychology shows that people who constantly are not able to refill their energy resources will burn out over time and experience emotional exhaustion.”

Be prepared

In any career, you’ll eventually be required to speak out and that’s bound to feel uncomfortable. If an introvert is also shy, the initial job interview itself can be a stressful situation.

“Shy introverts benefit from thinking about what questions could arise so if their level of anxiety goes up, at least they are prepared,” advises Dr Bosak. “For the general introvert, a challenge for them is overstimulation. Sometimes jobseekers may have multiple interviews in the one day. My advice for introverts: if possible, have the interviews spaced out so you have time to turn inward, replenish your energy, and think through how things went.”

According to Quigley, practising communication skills can also prove useful in all aspects of work, from the first interview to the weekly office meetings. He recommends beginning with one-to-one conversations and building up from there. “When you’re more confident, you’ll be more willing to speak up in a meeting scenario,” he said. “Put yourself in public speaking environments such as Toastmasters or any situation that make you a little bit nervous. Developing communication skills is the only way to overcome your fear.”

Have the conversation

If any aspects of your role are proving overwhelming, don’t be afraid to let your employer know that you’re struggling.

“I think we are in a culture now of open, honest transparency,” explains Tierney. “It has never been as good as it is today to speak about how you feel. Despite feeling at times that you’re not part of a clique, you must remember that you’re a valued member of staff. If you’re finding it hard, be brave, make an approach and have the conversation.”

Tips for employers

With many contemporary work environments leaning towards the trends of open-plan spaces, networking and team projects, it’s little wonder that introverts can find work a challenge.

Without having to completely overhaul the office, there are things an employer can do to make work comfortable for a diverse range of employees.

– Tierney trains employers to use profiling tools during recruitment in order to learn more about employees and their work preferences. “A CV is only a quarter of what someone is. Their life experiences, personality, behaviour, motivation and speed to learn are just as important.”

– Quigley agrees that being “aware of employee’s differences” is crucial for employers. “It’s important to have open conversations with people, find their appropriate work style and ask what an individual is seeking from a job.”

– In addition to “embracing diversity”, Dr Bosak recommends putting infrastructure in place in the office such as couches for those who need some quiet time throughout the day.

(First published by the Irish Times on March 20 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/an-introvert-s-survival-guide-to-the-workplace-1.3424024)

Leopards that live in cities are protecting people from rabies – New Scientist, March 8 2018

When leopards stray into a city, people often fear them because of the danger they pose. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies.

About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, as they bite people and pass on the rabies virus.

Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander Braczkowski at the University of Queensland and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of Mumbai. They found that 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet consists of feral dogs.

All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1,500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1,000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases.

“This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan.

The same could be true of other leopard populations that encroach on cities. The team found 19 studies describing leopards eating feral dogs in Asia and Africa. However, O’Bryan says that they would need to be studied more closely to be sure that they bring the same benefit.

The researchers also emphasise that leopards can  cause harm. In particular, they often kill livestock – leading people to persecute them.

“It’s difficult to weigh up the costs with the benefits with a large cat species that’s known to attack and even kill humans,” says O’Bryan. “We just want to provide an angle that hasn’t been explored before, despite the pieces of the puzzle being in front of us the whole time.”

Journal reference: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, DOI: 10.1002/fee.1776

(First published online by New Scientist. Available online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2163166-leopards-that-live-in-cities-are-protecting-people-from-rabies/)

2017’s most epic, talked-about travels – Zafigo.com, December 26 2017

Every now and then, you hear about someone who explored the world in such a way that it makes you want to book your next trip right away. As 2017 draws to a close, we recall six inspiring women travellers and their epic journeys.

Expedition 196

 

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica.

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica. (Photo Credit: Cassie De Pecol)

Hands up if you have a travel bucket list that grows by the minute? If so, Cassie De Pecol is bound to make you green with envy. In February, the 27-year-old American jetsetter became the first woman on record to visit every sovereign nation on earth. On completion of her journey in 18 months and 26 days, she also set the record for the fastest time to complete the global trip, beating the previous record of three years and three months held by Yili Liu, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Cassie’s trip, which began in Palau in 2015, spans 196 countries and saw her crossing through some difficult and occasionally, unwelcoming terrain. Her adventure wasn’t just about smashing world records and gaining passport stamps; as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, she promoted sustainable tourism through meetings with dignitaries, tourism ministers and students across the globe.

Worldwide wheeler

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride.

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride. (Photo Credit: Jin Jeong)

Unless you have been hiding under a rock recently (unlikely behaviour for our adventurous Zafigo readers!), you’re sure to have heard of Jin Jeong. When she was 24, this South Korean solo cyclist set herself a goal: To spin around the world alone on two wheels. Many told her it was an impossible feat, others warned her that the ambitious plan could prove dangerous for a woman on her own. Yet, despite discouraging opinions and setbacks ranging from accidents to sexual harassment, the bold explorer hasn’t looked back since setting her wheels in motion six years ago.

Sixty-seven countries and 62,000 kilometres later, Jin is as eager to travel as ever, and aims to inspire others to follow their own dreams. She certainly left many of us motivated to get pedalling after her talk at this year’s ZafigoX, an event dedicated to women empowerment and travel.

Turning tragedy into triumph

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

Receiving devastating news will either make or break you. For American native Megan Sullivan, a diagnosis of skin cancer was something that presented her with a new goal: to “live more now.” Her diagnosis, which occurred in the same month as a 50-feet fall in Yosemite and a road accident, encouraged her to embrace her wanderlust and embark on a long-awaited dream trip to the seven wonders of the world. Over 13 days, the 31-year-old made footprints in Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the 98-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Roman Colosseum in Italy.

Documenting her journey on her personal website as well as her Instagram feed (@megthelegend), Megan invites the world to take inspiration from her whirlwind adventure. “The only regrets that I have in my life are from the missed opportunities that I never took a chance on. This year I took a chance and I will continue taking chances to experience the greatest adventure of all: My life,” she wrote.

Running for change

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

At the age of 19, during a stint in Paris, every woman’s worst nightmare became a reality for Claire McFarlane. Raped and brutally attacked on the streets of one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations, the South Africa-born Australian was lucky to escape with her life. But 10 years later, she was forced to confront the traumatic experience when asked by French authorities to identify her suspected attacker. She did, and followed through with the legal proceedings that helped to put him behind bars.

Claire’s appalling experience, coupled with her fighting attitude, inspired her to make a change in the world. The result? Footsteps to Inspire, a challenge that will see Claire run 16 kilometres of beach in each country across the globe, to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. Though her endeavour hit the ground running – literally! – in July of last year, it was in 2017 that it really took off as Claire became a regular feature on the airwaves and in newspapers. At time of writing, she has run 33 countries across five continents, carrying her message every step of the way. In February, she visited Malaysia, where she ran 16km along Batu Ferringhi, Penang. Read Zafigo’s interview with Claire here.

Young explorer

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru’s mountaineering feats have brought her more news headlines and world records than she has had birthdays. At only 15, the Indian adventurer has scaled the highest mountains in four of the world’s seven continents as part of her #Mission7summit challenge. She is the youngest girl in the world to scale Mount Elbrus, the youngest Indian girl to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the youngest person to have reached the summit of Stok Kangri in the Himalayas… the list goes on.

She encourages others to aim high through her TED talks, guided treks, and involvement in worldwide campaigns. Jaahnavi now has her sights set on the final three: Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Vinson Massif in Antartica and Mount Everest. She plans to conquer the ultimate peak in April 2018 and has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help her to achieve her goal.

Flying high with the family

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: )

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: Zapp Family)

It’s standard for most to plan their travels before we ‘settle down’, believing that footloose living and family life exist worlds apart. Yet when they hit international headlines this year, the Zapp family from Argentina proved to us all that it’s entirely possible to bring the whole family along for the adventure.

In 2000, inspirational couple Herman and Candelaria Zapp loaded their bags into their vintage car and set off on what they intended to be a six-month trip from Argentina to Alaska before starting their family. One might say that they took one heck of a detour, as 17 years and 80 countries later, the ambitious adventurers are still on the road, only now, with their four children in tow. Despite running out of money in the first six months of their journey, the couple have kept pushing ahead with their dream, thanks to sales of their paintings, their book Spark your Life and the kindness of strangers. In 2017, the family began the final leg of their journey across the Atlantic and will soon return to Argentina to begin the next chapter of their lives.

(First published on Zafigo.com on December 26 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/2017-epic-talked-about-travels/)

5 ways to make friends in a new city – Zafigo.com, September 12 2017

The initial stages of moving to a new city can be incredibly exciting as you get to explore a new place and all that it has to offer. Then, reality kicks in and you may find yourself feeling lonely and missing things back home. The first few weeks of living in a new city can be particularly lonely, especially when flying solo. While it’s easy enough to pack up your clothes, books and even furniture during a move, there are some things you just can’t load into a suitcase, namely friends and family.

A new group of friends won’t be handed to you on a silver platter, and forming new friendships at an adult stage in life is certainly not as easy as during your playground days. But it doesn’t have to be difficult – so long as you’re willing to make an effort and lean outside your comfort zone.

#1 Join a social group

No matter how lonely you feel, you are certainly never alone. Regardless of where you go, there are plenty of like-minded women seeking a friend to share a coffee and a chat with. It’s just a case of finding them! Thankfully, there are several platforms that have been established to help you do just that.

On moving to a new town in Ireland, I joined the local GirlCrew branch and it was one of the best decisions I made. This women-only social network, which now has 46 branches worldwide and over 90,000 members, allows women in the same area to link up online and organise meet-ups and events.

While the first meeting was a bit daunting (and felt a bit like online dating!), once I got to chatting with people, I realised that there are so many other women out there in the same boat as me. Bowling nights, lunch dates and nights out ensued, and I can definitely say that I formed a few lasting friendships as a result.

Girl Gone International is a similar organisation for women worldwide. I am a member of the local group in Da Nang, Vietnam and love meeting both local women and expatriates alike at the fun monthly meet-ups. Not only has GGI brought me brilliant new friends; it has also given me some memorable experiences (such as a movie night on the beach and a Vietnamese cooking class).

#2 Find a new hobby

Have you always wanted to try yoga? Or perhaps you fancy yourself as a guitarist? Whatever your interest, moving to a new place is the perfect opportunity to start something different and in the process, meet new people. Striking up conversations with strangers doesn’t come easy to everybody, but joining a class that interests you ensures that you will always have a conversation starter.

Personally, I find signing up for a full-term course to be the best option. Once your money is handed over, you are more likely to stick with your new hobby and hopefully, continue to develop new friendships along the way. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the most talented person in the class; I recently joined a Zumba group in Da Nang and am certain that my moves are more akin to Bigfoot’s than Beyoncé’s! As long as you’re having fun and socialising with other people, that’s what matters.

#3 Work from a co-working space or cafe

Working on my laptop at home can feel pretty isolating. But I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re lucky enough to work for yourself or as a freelancer, you can turn your work days into social opportunities by working in a public space. Many large cities and small towns have established co-working spaces where you can rent a spot to work and rub shoulders with others throughout the work day. Some of these spaces also organise social activities and events to allow people to get to know their ‘co-workers’ and share ideas.

A cheaper and easier alternative is to work from a local cafe. Find out where the most popular spots are (in my case, anywhere with strong WiFi, strong coffee and good air-conditioning) and prop yourself up with your laptop and a cafe latte. Stir up a conversation with the person at the table next to you if the opportunity arises. Chatting with the café staff could also turn into a chance to make a new friend. At the very least, working from a cafe will allow you to enjoy a change of scenery and some delicious coffee. Who can argue with that?

#4 Be a volunteer

There’s no point in wasting your free and alone time feeling sorry for yourself or pining for home. No matter where you are in the world, there is always an organisation or cause that is crying out for helping hands. Why not offer to do some work at a local animal shelter or get involved in a weekly soup run?

If you find yourself unable to commit to a weekly volunteer position, seek out one-off events such as beach clean-ups or charity fundraisers. Such admirable causes attract people from all walks of life, so you are guaranteed to meet a diverse range of people.

If you find someone that you click with, don’t be afraid to ask them out for a coffee afterwards. What’s the worst that could happen? Chances are they will only be delighted to wind down and chat after a busy day.

#5 Keep an open mind

Sometimes new friends can be found in the most unlikely places. For this reason, it is so important to keep an open mind and remain patient when you move abroad. That girl you’re chatting with on a long bus journey home could become a firm friend. During a stint living in Paris, I met one of my best friends there completely by chance when she approached me to ask for directions.

While asking me how to get anywhere is a grave mistake (navigation isn’t my strong suit), her decision to approach me certainly was not. It turned out that we have a lot in common. Not only were we both going to the same place and equally as lost as the other, we were also living away from home and enjoyed many of the same activities.

When we finally reached our destination, we swapped phone numbers and arranged to meet up for a drink the following week. Soon, a strong friendship blossomed, and over the next few months we explored the beautiful streets and sights of Paris together. Fast forward four years later and we live elsewhere, but we still remain in touch. And that’s how I know that each time I move some place new, I’ll always be able to find new friends.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/make-friends-when-move-new-city/)

How microbes may influence our behaviour – The Scientist, September 2017

Stress, anxiety, and depression are emotions we all feel at some point in our lives, some people to a greater degree than others. Part of the human experience, right?

“It may seem odd that my research focuses on the gut if I’m interested in the brain,” says  John Cryan, a researcher at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork in Ireland. “But when we think of how we express emotion in language, through sayings like ‘butterflies in your tummy’ and ‘gut feeling,’ it isn’t surprising that they’re connected.”

In a recent study, Cryan and his colleagues reported a link between the microbiome and fear. By examining mice with and without gut bacteria, they discovered that the germ-free mice had blunted fear responses (Mol Psychiatr, doi:10.1038/mp.2017.100, 2017). Their findings may pave the way for the development of novel treatments for anxiety-related illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder.

Researchers at Kyushu University in Japan were the first to show, in 2004, that bacteria in the gut can influence stress responses, prompting many subsequent investigations. Yet despite mounting research, scientists remain uncertain about exactly how the gut microbiome affects the brain. While some bacteria influence the brain through the vagus nerve, other strains seem to use different pathways. It is known, however, that the population of the gut microbiome begins in early life, and recent research suggests that disruptions to its normal development may influence future physical and mental health (Nat Commun, 6:7735, 2015).

Researchers are finding that this gut-brain connection could have clinical implications, as influencing the gut microbiome through diet may serve to ameliorate some psychiatric disorders. Together with University College Cork colleague Ted Dinan, Cryan coined the term “psychobiotics” in 2013 to describe live organisms that, when ingested, produce health benefits in patients with psychiatric illness. These include foods containing probiotics, live strains of gut-friendly bacteria.

While there are many rodent studies linking probiotics and mental health, UCLA biologist Emeran Mayer and his colleagues were the first to test them in humans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to assess the results. After administering probiotic yogurt to a group of healthy women twice a day for four weeks, the researchers found that the women had a reduced brain response to negative images (Gastroenterology, 144:1394-401, 2013).

“We reanalysed the data several times and convinced ourselves that it’s real,” Mayer says. “You can almost say it was a career-changer for me.”

Having conducted this study on healthy participants, Mayer is reluctant to conclude that probiotics can cure mental illnesses such as anxiety. “It’s a complex emotion, not just a reflex behavior like in the mouse,” he says. However, Mayer says he’s very supportive of the potential of prebiotics—fiber-rich foods  that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia recently trialed a Mediterranean-style diet, which is predominately plant-based and fiber-rich, in a group of adults with major depression. They found that one-third of the participants reported a significant improvement in symptoms after 12 weeks on the diet (BMC Medicine, 15:23, 2017). One of them was Sarah Keeble from Melbourne. “I’ve suffered from depression for 17 years. At the start of this study, I was right at the bottom of the barrel,” she recalls. “After a few weeks, that sinking feeling slowly lifted, and my motivation and enthusiasm improved.”

Just as activity in the gut seems to affect the brain, mental stress can lead to intestinal problems. Scientists have demonstrated this in research on irritable bowel syndrome. For example, a study by Mayer and colleagues linked early-life emotional trauma to an increased risk of developing the bowel disorder (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 10:385-90, 2012).

As data on the brain-gut axis accumulates, many scientists are taking notice. Trinity College Dublin researcher Shane O’Mara says that there is “great potential” in this area, but cautions that it’s too early to say whether targeting the microbiome will play a role in psychiatric treatment. University of Manitoba gastroenterologist Charles Bernstein also feels the research is promising but believes we are “far from manipulating the microbiome to treat mental health disorders.”

Those spearheading this research are equally aware of the need for more studies, particularly in human subjects, but they are hopeful that change lies ahead. “I’m almost certain that in several years, diet will be considered one branch of therapy for many mental illnesses, alongside medication and psychiatric treatments,” says Mayer.

“People with severe mental illness will still need something very strong, but this is a useful adjunctive,” agrees Cryan. “I think when we go to our GP in future, we will not only have blood tests, we will have the microbiome tested.”

“Within five years, I hope to see more clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy of prebiotics and probiotics on mental health disorders,” says University of Chicago microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert. “There needs to be a revolution in how we deal with mental illness in our society.”

(First published in The Scientist magazine September 2017. Also available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50146/title/How-Microbes-May-Influence-Our-Behavior/)