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Purposeful Days for Your Loved One Living with Dementia: Open House for Family Caregivers
Saturday, March 16th 11am-1pm. Click HERE to RSVP!
Open Mobile Menu

Can Virtual Reality Offer Better Alzheimer’s Testing?

Can virtual reality testing actually help diagnose Alzheimer’s? New research says yes.

You may be familiar with the expression, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” However, virtual reality offers something like an opportunity for one — only better.

For instance, in one recent feasibility study, seniors with dementia benefited from wearing VR headsets that immersed them in a peaceful forest glade. Not only did they enjoy the simulated natural environments, but being in nature helped elicit conversations that stimulated memory, because headset users related what they were seeing to personal experience.

VR also has application as a caregiving tool. In a memory care setting, virtual reality can help care providers manage patient agitation and aggression. One hospital even tailored a VR program to educate caregivers and boost empathy for people with Alzheimer’s.

Virtual Reality: Improving the Gold Standard on Alzheimer’s Testing

While there are several cognitive tests to assess Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, virtual reality can identify early Alzheimer’s more accurately than even the gold standard of those currently in use, according to a new UK study led by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge.

The study’s findings center around a region of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex, our “internal positioning system,” and one of the first areas to be damaged by Alzheimer’s. This may explain why getting lost is an early symptom of the disease. When the brain’s navigational system goes on the blink, we literally don’t know which way to turn.

In the VR test, patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) donned VR headsets to “walk” in a simulated environment. While MCI is an early indicator of dementia, it can also be a normal aspect of aging, or a result of anxiety, which affects 40 million Americans. Not all those with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Navigating the Neurocognitive Network

In order to track the biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease, the Cambridge researchers took samples of the test subjects’ cerebrospinal fluid, which circulates around the brain and spinal cord. Twelve of the test subjects tested positive for Alzheimer’s biomarkers.

While all of those with MCI did worse on the virtual reality test than a control group with no memory impairment, the test yielded two important additional results:

First, those with biomarkers of underlying Alzheimer’s disease performed more poorly during the virtual reality testing than subjects without Alzheimer’s biomarkers in their cerebrospinal fluid.

Second, and perhaps even more crucial, the VR navigation test more effectively differentiated between those with MCI who are at low risk of developing dementia versus those who are at high risk, better than any of the standardized dementia tests.

The Role of  Technology in Alzheimer’s Treatment

These virtual reality results hold out great promise for the development of medications that may slow, or even halt, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The brain cells underpinning navigation are similar in rodents and humans, so testing navigation in mice may allow us to overcome this roadblock in Alzheimer’s drug trials and help translate basic science discoveries into clinical use,” said lead researcher Dr. Dennis Chan. Chan is a former student of Professor John O’Keefe, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the brain’s navigational system.

“We’ve wanted to do this for years, but it’s only now that VR technology has evolved to the point that we can readily undertake this research in patients.”

Technology, Chan says, will play a crucial role in future Alzheimer’s treatment. He is partnering with designers of wearables and augmented intelligence to develop apps both for detecting the disease, and for monitoring systems that would run on smartphones and smart watches.

As well as looking for changes in how we navigate, the apps will track changes in other everyday activities such as sleep and communication.

“We know that Alzheimer’s affects the brain long before symptoms become apparent. We’re getting to the point where everyday tech can be used to spot the warning signs of the disease well before we become aware of them.

“We live in a world where mobile devices are almost ubiquitous, so app-based approaches have the potential to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease at minimal extra cost and at a scale way beyond that of brain scanning and other current diagnostic approaches.

“If we can develop drugs and administer them earlier, for instance before the disease has spread beyond the entorhinal cortex, then this would have the potential to prevent the onset of dementia.”

Premier Memory Care for Your Loved One

At Kensington Place we offer premier memory care, so we’re always excited to learn about leading edge discoveries that may soon make life even richer and more rewarding for our cherished residents. Our mission is to appreciate and honor every resident as a member of our family.

We offer a full spectrum of memory care support across two specialized “neighborhoods”:

  • Connections serves residents in the early to middle stages of dementia. We help residents be independently engaged in activities that give meaning and purpose to their days. We continually assess residents’ maximum cognitive ability and recall, then “meet them where they are” to help them make the most of their strengths.
  • Haven serves residents in the middle to late stages of memory loss. It offers a soothing and peaceful environment designed for residents who require a higher level of assistance and care. Our goal here is to maximize comfort, minimize agitation, and soothe compassionately. We strive to offer residents opportunities to become involved in ways that are meaningful for them.

Both Connections and Haven are cozy environments where residents feel comfortable and secure, and where loving professionals accommodate the specific needs that accompany each stage in the progression of memory loss.

We look forward to welcoming you to Kensington Place Redwood City soon.

Further Reading:

Memory loss is life changing for all involved. At Kensington Place, we provide a state-of-the-art memory care program, a higher staff-to-resident ratio than industry standards, and more advanced care services. Our promise is to love and care for your family as we do our own.

For additional resources regarding your loved one’s condition, please read on about our Memory Care, Alzheimer’s Care and Dementia Care.