Virtual reality research project helps improve quality of life for people with dementia

Virtual reality (VR) technology could vastly improve the quality of life for people with dementia by helping to recall past memories, reduce aggression and improve interactions with caregivers, new research has discovered.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Kent’s School of Engineering and Digital Arts, took place at St Andrew's Healthcare in Northampton.

Eight patients aged between 41 and 88 who are living with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease, took part in the study. Each patient used a VR headset to ‘visit’ one of five virtual environments of a forest, a cathedral, a sandy beach, a rocky beach, and a countryside scene. Sixteen sessions were monitored with feedback gathered from the patients and their caregivers.

One key finding was that VR helped patients recall old memories by providing new stimuli difficult to achieve, due to ill-health, or inaccessible within a secure environment. For example, one patient recalled a holiday when they saw a bridge in the virtual environments because it reminded them of that trip, while another remembered a holiday where they visited a market.

These memories not only provided positive mental stimulation for the patients but helped their caregivers learn more about their lives before care, thereby improving their social interaction.

Furthermore, at an arts session some weeks later, one of the patients who had taken part commented that it had been ‘brilliant’. He appeared to enjoy reminiscing about it and was inspired to draw a seaside picture, suggesting that his VR experience had had a positive effect on his mood and motivation to engage with the art session.

The patients also demonstrated their own choices during the experiment, with some keen to explore different VEs within a session, while others explored the same environment repeatedly.

Researcher Vienna Rose, a research assistant funded by our Research Centre, worked on the project. She explained: “The aim of the study was to explore how feasible it is to use virtual reality equipment with our patients who are living with dementia. The whole multidisciplinary team – including psychologists, occupational therapists and nursing staff – were involved with this project, which enabled us to combine our research with clinical knowledge and expertise; an approach that is integral to the research strategy being developed at St Andrew’s.“

Dr Ang from the University of Kent’s School of Engineering and Digital Arts, said a larger study was needed to validate the results, but the early indications showed VR had huge potential in this area: “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. With further research, it will be possible to further evaluate the elements of VEs that benefit patients and use VR even more effectively.”

The virtual reality content used in the study was created using a 360-degree video camera. Traditionally, creating virtual reality content requires significant technical expertise, but by using a 360-degree video camera our clinicians and carers were able to generate a personalised virtual reality experience for the patients.

The researchers added that as it becomes easier to produce 360-degree VR videos it could allow virtual environments specifically designed for individual patients, such as their home or a favourite location, to be created.

The paper, Bring the Outside In: Providing Accessible Experiences Through VR for People with Dementia in Locked Psychiatric Hospitals,has been presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems taking place in Glasgow 4-9 May. The findings have also been published in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

For more information about St Andrew’s Research Centre, email the team.