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Could a VR headset help you better understand a relative with Alzheimer’s?

Could a VR headset help you better understand a relative with Alzheimer’s?
20th August 2018

Having a relative with Alzheimer’s disease can be difficult to cope with and the situation is likely to be mutual. The degenerative condition leaves many patients feeling lost and disorientated, but it can be hard to understand what it’s really like when you’ve never experienced it.

Now, a US company has developed a virtual reality (VR) headset that mimics the disease for users. Embodied Labs hopes that the device will help to foster empathy in relatives and caregivers, because they’ll have first-hand knowledge of what it’s really like.

Carrie Shaw, creator of the device at Embodied Labs, told Chicago magazine: “We see that people have better understanding after going through the Alzheimer’s experience that it’s a disease of the brain, and that when people are acting out it’s because of their disease and not because of their personality or intentional behaviour.”

She started working on the virtual reality learning program as part of her master’s degree in medical illustration at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). Ms Shaw’s mother was coming to the end of her 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s and it provided the inspiration for her research project.

Posing questions about whether it would be possible to visualise what Alzheimer’s patients were going through and if this could help to improve healthcare, Ms Shaw collaborated with Thomas Leahy. He was also a student at UIC and the pair started to create 360-degree depictions of life with dementia.

It was not long before the limitations of making first-person simulations on a desktop computer became clear and they started to work with VR. Due to the fully immersive nature of the medium, bodily resonance occurs, allowing users to see their hands move on the screen when they move them in real life.

Ms Shaw added: “Your brain actually can get tricked into internalising that experience as a memory of something that’s happened to you. That’s where you get this really interesting opportunity to learn.”

Since leaving university, Ms Shaw has worked to bring the idea to life and Embodied Labs was born. The VR headsets are available to medical schools, care homes and other facilities to help train doctors and staff, but could also be useful for families coming to terms with a relative’s diagnosis.

In order to experience life as an Alzheimer’s patient, users of the VR headset enter the world of Beatriz. She is a middle-aged woman who starts out in the early stages of the condition and slowly moves through the advancement of the disease until it is at its worst.

Alzheimer’s is not the only condition that can be simulated with the VR headsets, as Embodied Labs also offers modules to understand other age-related diseases. Users can step into the everyday life of Alfred, a 74-year-old with cognitive impairment, macular degeneration and hearing loss.

Stepping away from traditional lectures and textbook learning could be the future for healthcare professionals looking to work with an ageing population. VR offers many possibilities and anything that helps to encourage empathy is a positive step forward.