New advances are being made every day in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, many scientists have been turning to virtual reality (VR) as a way of diagnosing and treating the symptoms of the disease. From a maze that can predict Alzheimer’s to a virtual supermarket that can help treat cognitive decline, there are many new and innovative ways that researchers are incorporating VR into Alzheimer’s research.
A Maze That Predicts Alzheimer's
Scientists from the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases created a virtual reality maze in order to test people who were at a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s. The study was conducted on a group of people, ages 18-30. Some participants were deemed “at risk” for Alzheimer’s based on the fact that they carried a gene known as the APOE e4 gene that is believed to trigger the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Other participants did not carry the gene. Scientists found that the participants who were at risk for developing Alzheimer’s had more trouble navigating the maze than participants who were not at risk. The findings in this study could help with diagnosing Alzheimer’s in the future and could answer questions as to why people with Alzheimer’s and dementia have trouble navigating the real world.
The Virtual Forest
A non-profit society out of Victoria, Australia called Alzheimer’s Australia VIC partnered with game designers Opaque Media Group to create a virtual reality forest that is designed to be soothing and calming to people who suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Often times, people who suffer from different types of dementia experience anxiety, depression, and episodes of rage. This VR forest is part of a type of therapy known as sensory therapy, or sensory stimulation, which engages the senses in a relaxing environment while preventing idleness and boredom. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s can enter the relaxing, realistic VR forest and experience calmness, wonder, and joy. View the forest for yourself in summer or winter time.
Simulating the Symptoms of Dementia
The Opaque Media Group has also created what they call the Virtual Dementia Experience (VDE). This system lets caregivers, family members, and friends enter a VR world that simulates what the world is like for those who suffer from dementia. This system is designed to help caregivers and loved ones better understand what their loved one with dementia experiences on a daily basis. Obviously, the system cannot replicate the memory problems that come with different types of dementia, but it can reproduce the problems with sight, known as the perceptual distortions of reality, that dementia causes.
Playing Games to Treat Alzheimer's
Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland have developed a virtual reality training system called Cognimat that is designed to treat patients with early Alzheimer’s. This system contains a three-dimensional maze that has been created to resemble a supermarket, called the SuperMazeMarket (SMM). Participants can move through the SMM just as they would through a regular supermarket. For example, items can be removed from the SMM shelves. While in the SMM, participants are asked to perform certain tasks that have been designed to target memory and spatial orientation. The SMM is designed to help train the brain while being fun and entertaining, too.
To read more about virtual reality and how it is being used to diagnose, treat, and simulate Alzheimer’s disease, read A Succinct Overview of Virtual Reality Technology Use in Alzheimer’s Disease.