Virtual reality (VR) therapy may vastly improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, a small new study from the University of Kent, U.K., has found.
Specifically, researchers found that exposing people with dementia to virtual reality environments helped them recall old memories, reduced aggression and improved their interactions with caregivers.
“VR can clearly have positive benefits for patients with dementia, their families, and caregivers. It provides a richer and more satisfying quality of life than is otherwise available, with many positive outcomes,” explains Dr. Jim Ang, PhD, one of the study’s researchers.
How virtual reality therapy may benefit people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia
The small study involved just eight patients between the ages of 41 and 88, living with various types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.
The study’s participants used a virtual reality headset to visit one of five virtual environments – a cathedral, a countryside, a forest, a sandy beach. and a rocky beach.
Over the course of 16 sessions, patients were monitored and feedback was gathered from patients and their caregivers.
The patients chose which environment they would visit each time. Some explored several different locales within a single session. Others returned to the same place over and over again.
Among the chief findings: The new stimulation provided by the virtual reality tours helped dementia patients tap into old memories.
According to the researchers, recalling buried memories gave participants positive mental stimulation and helped the caregivers learn more about their lives before. This, the caregivers said, improved social interactions between them and their patients.
One study participant with dementia referred to the VR event as “brilliant,” and enjoyed reminiscing about the experience. He was also inspired to draw a seascape in an art class several weeks later. The researchers suggest this may show a correlation between VR and a positive mood and motivation to engage in the art class.
More research on virtual reality therapy needed
Because the study was small, Dr. Ang points out that larger studies are needed to validate the results, but that the early findings are promising for people with dementia.
As virtual reality videos become easier to produce, the virtual environments could be customized for individual Alzheimer’s patients, with virtual visits to places, such as their home or favorite place, added the researchers.