Solutions in Virtual Reality for Dementia and Alzheimer's

Do we believe that Dementia and Alzheimer’s are just “normal” aging disorders? Since it is one of the largest growing clinical populations in the world today is the assumption growing that this is a disorder that is just a part of ageing? Do we understand the challenges that people carrying the diagnosis are faced with? How can new technologies like Virtual Reality help attenuate symptoms and establish a higher quality of life?

Researchers in the UK recognized that one of the challenges facing people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Dementia is the lack of understanding of the disorders themselves. These disorders can be recognized by their disconnect, a disconnection from the sense of sight, from speech, from the environment, a disconnect from memory. It is like having had a stroke, as a matter of fact, some of the people recorded in this experience have been misdiagnosed in that very manner. A Walk through Dementia is a Virtual Reality experience that proposes a deeper understanding of the disease, and builds on that empathic experience to build engagement.

At the AWE/VWS/DigitalRaign Techforgood summit Linda Jacobson, VR for good expert, also addressed certain challenges faced in Alzheimer’s and Dementia. If we apply the principle of neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains and nervous systems to reconstruct new synapses as a result of the interaction with enriched environments, we can understand VR’s unique toolset. At the summit, Linda presented the results she had had in her research using Virtual Reality to help those with Dementia and Alzheimers.

One of the methodologies is startlingly simple yet extremely effective: use the Google Earth Virtual Reality program as a visual reminder of familiar places. An immersive trip into the personal memory bank. The elderly brain is geared to relive good memories and the neural circuits are shown to light up when activating these very memories. Every time a memory is relived there is an activation of dopamine and feel-good hormone serotonin. In this way, Google Earth Virtual Reality program becomes a dose of non-invasive therapy. This lighting of the brain circuits then contributes to a fresh flow of dopamine, which in turn activates the motivational centers of the brain furthers focus and just feeling good. A quick rejuvenation treatment so to speak!

The therapeutic aspect of this type of treatment also lies in the fact that this experience, when shared, can be used to talk about past experiences and thus work memory circuits. It enables the conversation to go towards different aspects of change and how this may impact the elders. Some are feeling hopeless, or forgotten or have forgotten the memories of the places and people they once loved. The experience is shared in a community of others also partaking in their own journeys: places are shared, memories and connection to people are shared, old stories are relived. This sharing and being mirrored, i.e. activating mirror neurons, is an important aspect of working therapeutically (Dr Dan Siegel in Parabola, summer 2011, explaining Interpersonal Neurobiology). This program can work with cognitive based therapies to enhance rehabilitation, and thus convey a similarity of a given scene: “Virtual Reality-based cognitive rehabilitation systems support procedures for mitigating behavioral and psychological symptoms of patients having mild cognitive impairment and early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.” (American Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementias)

Linda also spoke about simulations that benefit people with brain impairment. They boost test scores of those exposed and generally caretakers observed a higher quality of life.

The favorite 360 experiences of those that she had been working with or shown:

-travel to exotic locals

-nature wildlife

-flying and out of body experiences

She also stresses the importance of finding the right combination of factors- it will help older adults she says, caregivers and organizations only if it is easy to use and it meets a need that is clear to all people involved. Linda has currently been working with several promising start ups on four continents to deliver VR experiences that will enhance eldercare.

In a report published by CNN on the Brain and Crafting, it was mentioned that scientists are beginning to study different leisure activities' and their impact on the brain. Researchers found that playing games, reading books and crafting could reduce your chances of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30% to 50%, according to a 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry. All forms of crafting, reading and playing games seem to help mitigate mild cognitive impairment. However, VR is taking a unique spot in the world of aging, and that of the disorders Alzheimers and Dementia through quality of life enhancement, education and attenuation of symptoms.

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