2019 - 2024, Active

Using Re-inforcement Learning to Automatically Adapt a Remote Therapy Intervention (RTI) for Reducing Adolescent Violence Involvement (Project SynERgy)

Affiliated Project

Homicide is a leading cause of death among adolescent youth, and disproportionately affects African-American populations. This study, conducted among a sample of adolescents (14-20 years old) seeking treatment at multi-site urban emergency departments (ED) for violent injuries, aims to refine, adapt, and test two versions of our previously piloted violence intervention, a standard remote therapy condition (S-RTI) comprised of a single ED therapy session followed by 6 remote therapy sessions and an adaptive RTI version (AI-RTI) optimized by an artificial intelligence algorithm (i.e., reinforcement learning) to step up or down the intensity of treatment between three treatment levels (i.e., remote therapy sessions, automated two-way text messaging, assessment only) based on patient response to daily text message assessments. Given elevated rates of violence among socio- disadvantaged adolescents with disparities in access to services, the proposed intervention, if efficacious, has the potential for significant public health impact, especially in low-resource urban communities.


Youth violence is a key public health problem. Homicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents (age:14- 20) and disproportionately impacts African-American populations. Urban EDs are a critical opportunity for violence prevention, especially with >600,000 adolescents/year seeking treatment for violence-related injuries. In our longitudinal study of violently-injured adolescents in urban EDs, the project team found that within 2-years, 37% returned for a repeat violent injury, 59% experienced firearm violence, 38% were arrested, and 1% died. Despite the importance of the problem, strategies to decrease repeat violence after an ED visit have not been well studied. Given prior work demonstrating that theoretically-based single session ED interventions are efficacious reducing violence among lower risk adolescents, the application of this therapy, expanded to address greater problem severity over multiple sessions and enhanced by including care management, represents a potentially efficacious approach for altering risk trajectories of higher-risk violently-injured adolescents. The project team’s recent pilot of this approach (S-RTI) was well received and addressed problems identified in prior multisession interventions (e.g., transportation) with the addition of remote therapy delivery (e.g., phone). While innovative and promising, this S-RTI approach is resource intensive and does not address heterogeneity in treatment responses. By contrast, adaptive treatment strategies allow for “just-in-time” tailoring that provides a balance between too much and not enough intervention and enhances outcomes while reducing the use of costly resources. Reinforcement learning is an artificial intelligence domain that allows computer systems to “learn” from the success of prior treatments and is a promising approach to constructing adaptive “just-in-time” interventions.

This study proposes to test two versions of our RTI, a standard RTI condition (S-RTI) comprised of a single ED session followed by 8 remote therapy sessions, and an adaptive RTI version (AI-RTI) optimized by reinforcement learning to step up or down the intensity of treatment between three levels (i.e., remote therapy sessions, automated two- way text messaging, assessment only) based on patient response to daily text message assessments. The specific aims are: 1) To refine and adapt our RTI for delivery using two packages (S-RTI; AI-RTI); 2) To conduct a 3-arm RCT enrolling 900 violently-injured adolescents seeking ED care (age:14-20) to compare the efficacy of S-RTI (n=300), AI-RTI (n=400), and a control condition (n=200); and, 3) To evaluate adaptability of the AI-RTI RL algorithm by comparing the first 50% of enrollees to the second 50% on process variables (e.g., engagement, helpfulness/likability). Primary outcomes (assessed at 4-, 8-, and 12-months) include aggression, victimization, and ED recidivism for violent injury. Secondary outcomes include substance use, mental health symptoms, and criminal justice involvement. As a secondary aim, the project team aims compare resource utilization (i.e., costs/event averted) for the active intervention conditions. Given elevated rates of violence among socio-disadvantaged youth with disparities in access to services, the proposed study has the potential for significant public health impact.

Project Team

Patrick Carter, MD
Jason Goldstick, PhD
Ken Resnicow, PhD
Maureen Walton, MPH, PhD
Rebecca Cunningham, MD
Laura Seewald, MD
John Piette, Co-Investigator
Lisa Prosser, Co-Investigator
Shih-Chen Kuo, Co-Investigator


National Institutes of Health