Dementia Treatment: Can Virtual Reality Help Trigger Memory?

As a technology that’s still very much in its early stages, virtual reality or VR is mainly used for entertainment. Characterized by its recognizable headset, VR is mostly used to make games and entertainment systems more immersive, making a virtual world that people can “interact” with. A recently published study, however, found that besides gaming, it can have some real-world applications, like helping people with dementia.

The risks of dementia

As an umbrella term for a range of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s, dementia affects our memory in such a way that our day-to-day activities are negatively impacted due to severe memory loss. And since it’s a neurodegenerative disorder, a person’s risk for developing it just increases with age.

Unlocking past memories

Led by researchers from the UK’s University of Kent, the research was carried out on eight people with dementia, all of whom are patients at a psychiatric hospital. Aged 41 to 88 years old, the participants were made to wear virtual reality headsets, where they accessed five different virtual environments over a course of 16 sessions. With the researchers monitoring the sessions, the participants were then shown the countryside, a rocky beach, a cathedral, a forest and a sandy beach.

According to the findings published in the Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the sessions returned positive results, with the patients remembering old memories after being virtually transported into the different environments. For example, one was able to recall an old trip after seeing a virtual bridge similar to the one they passed by on that holiday.

The participants also said that the experience boosted their mood, as well as their engagement levels with each other and their caregivers.

As the first study to use the concept of personal space through VR, the authors said that the research was fruitful. However, since the study was done on a small sample, more research needs to be made in the future, preferably with a bigger population.

"VR can clearly have positive benefits for patients with dementia, their families and caregivers," said co-author and senior lecturer Chee Siang Ang, Ph.D. "It provides a richer and more satisfying quality of life than is otherwise available, with many positive outcomes."

vr-911031_960_720 A VR headset. Photo by Pixabay (CC0)