Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can cause memory loss and issues with information recall, along with a decline in language and communication skills. Most cases have no cure, and the symptoms can be difficult for doctors to treat and caregivers to manage.
Now, a new study by researchers at the University of Kent has found that virtual reality (VR) technology — which uses a combination of head tracking, computer graphics, and audio to immerse users in a 3D experience — may make these symptoms easier to treat.
Connecting with the Past
Throughout the study, each subject had 16 sessions with the VR equipment.
During each session, the subjects were given the opportunity to navigate one of five virtual environments — a cathedral, a forest, a countryside scene, and two different virtual beaches — generated from 360-degree videos of real-world locations. Some people became attached to particular places, which they visited multiple times across sessions. Others were more interested in variety and visited several scenes in single sittings.
The study’s authors found that the new stimuli offered by the virtual environments — like seeing a bridge, a tree or a shoreline — helped patients recall past experiences that were otherwise difficult to remember or inaccessible. By the end of the study, the researchers had found that exposing patients to VR environments helped with their memory recall. They also noted a general improvement in subjects’ quality of life, marked by a decrease in aggression and better interactions with caregivers.
One patient, inspired by a virtual scene, drew a shoreline in an art therapy session. The researchers said this was a sign the VR experience has positively impacted his mood and cognitive function.
The study was small — following just eight patients between the ages of 44 and 81 — but its success has likely paved the way for larger follow-up studies. Researchers hope that in the future, VR may help seniors reconnect with their pasts in an even more literal sense. As it becomes easier to record and generate environments from 3D videos, it may be possible for doctors and caregivers to create virtual environments that would be familiar to patients, like their home.
Researchers think the familiarity of these locations could inspire even great improvements in memory recall and patient mood. This could even help caregivers who struggle to communicate with loved ones with dementia. Even if it’s not possible to simulate familiar environments, VR may also still be an effective mode of therapy for people with limited mobility who otherwise couldn’t experience real outdoor environments.
Dementia And VR As Medicine
The study wasn’t the first to investigate how VR might help patients with dementia.
Another study this year found that virtual reality environments could also be useful in the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that an experimental VR test — which required patients to navigate a virtual environment — could detect the development of dementia even earlier than the traditional cognitive tests currently in use. It was also better at distinguishing between patients who were at high and low risk for mild cognitive impairment.
VR may also have applications beyond patients with dementia. Multiple studies over the past decade have found that VR can be an effective treatment for acute and chronic pain. Some studies even found that VR experiences may be more effective than traditional painkillers in certain cases.
The findings were good news for doctors in areas that were the most impacted by the opioid addiction epidemic. They have long been after nonaddictive alternatives to common painkillers.
As VR technology improves, and as researchers and clinicians gain more experience with the technology, more of these breakthrough studies will likely be conducted.
Future of VR in Medicine
Alzheimer’s and other diseases that cause dementia create memory difficulties that distress patients and make them harder to care for. Dementia can be particularly difficult to treat — which is why the findings of this new study are so exciting to researchers.
It wasn’t entirely clear what precisely about the VR simulations improved patients’ memories and moods — but the study’s results were positive enough to encourage future research into the area. Soon, VR may be used to help seniors connect with their pasts to help medical professionals better care for those with dementia.