Want to Know What It's Like to Have Dementia? Virtual Reality Can Help

By Rob Goodier

August 19, 2018

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Virtual-reality technology can help cognitively healthy people experience what it is like to suffer from dementia, according to a presentation at the 2018 Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Chicago last month.

Embodied Labs, a virtual reality (VR) startup, created simulations to train caregivers and prepare family members for the changes that their loved ones undergo as they age or suffer cognitive decline, said Carrie Shaw, the company's founder and CEO, who presented the technology.

Students at Northside College Preparatory School in Chicago experienced the VR training modules as part of a program called Bringing Art to Life, which aims to foster empathy and study the effect on the students.

In the modules, interactive videos place users in the roles of an elderly black man called Alfred suffering symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, macular degeneration and high-frequency hearing loss, and a middle-aged Latina called Beatriz with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Through the simulation, users can carry out ordinary tasks such as cutting vegetables and hosting visitors while handicapped with visual, audio and cognitive obstacles. To simulate impairments, images appear blurry or marred with a black spot in the center. Barely audible voices say unintelligible things in the background. And to simulate a symptom of dementia, there is one scene in which the user cannot speak the words he or she intends.

Students surveyed said the experience instilled more interest in working with aging patients and in healthcare careers in general. The students also said they had gained a deeper understanding of the perspective of the middle-aged and elderly.

The VR training modules had a humble beginning as a pair of safety glasses. Shaw once taped up the lenses of safety glasses to block vision on the left side, demonstrating to the wearer what a left visual field deficit feels like. The glasses were an impromptu teaching tool for her mother's caregivers, but they became the seed for a VR educational program.

"My favorite way to frame our process at Embodied Labs is to model it after how we create any medical visualization," Shaw, who is a medical illustrator by training, told Reuters Health. While a medical illustrator might create an animation of a microscopic protein, Embodied Labs mirrors the process on a macro scale, Shaw said.

"We interview patients, caregivers, and medical experts and collect subject matter expertise that informs our final VR experiences. Hundreds of perspectives and voices are collected and the final story represents common threads from all of these interviews," Shaw said.

The simulations also dive down to a microscopic level. Through interactive animations, users see inside the brain and even inside individual neurons to learn how it all works when healthy, and how it is believed to decline under the effects of beta-amyloid and tau proteins associated with cognitive impairment.

Caregivers and every other staff undergo the virtual immersion modules at Chicago Methodist Senior Services (CMSS), which provides assisted living, rehabilitation and other services. CMSS became an investor in Embodied Labs, and one of the selling points is the realism of the modules, said Bill Lowe, president and CEO of the organization.

"Embodied Labs takes the time to interview real staff and residents at CMSS to make sure the experience is realistic and applicable to everyday situations. Giving our staff a chance to understand the experiences of the residents they serve each day makes them more efficient and compassionate caregivers," Lowe told Reuters Health.

The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa is the next stop in the program that exposes students to the virtual training. Researchers plan to refine their methods for gathering data and test the modules among the university's students next spring, according to Shaw.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/2LlkCn6

Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2018.