Virtual Reality Is Life-Changing For People With Dementia

Virtual reality, smart clothes and reminiscence therapy are offering respite to patients and carers. One of millions of people who die each year from the neurodegenerative disease, Alzheimer’s, for which a cure is not possible. The condition, one of a number of forms of dementia, is caused by rogue proteins that lodge and tangle in the neural networks of the brain, causing irreparable damage to the billions of neurons which transmit the electrical signals that build memories. These cells gradually die, causing memory loss and personality change, eventually halting the brain’s basic functions.


Despite decades of medical research into treatments to slow the disease’s progressive course or prevent it entirely – the field from which Pfizer notably withdrew in January, after years of setbacks – it is not yet known what causes these proteins to gather, and therefore how to remove or block them. And despite Alzheimer’s being the world’s fifth biggest killer, funding levels for research have lagged shockingly behind those for both cancer and the next biggest area of medical research, cardiovascular disease.

In the meantime, the greatest cost is in providing care and therapy for those suffering from the disease – a global total currently estimated at $818 billion; the equivalent to over one per cent of global GDP. If no effective treatment and preventive solution is found this sum will only increase, as ten million new cases of dementia are diagnosed each year.

UK healthcare start-up, Virtue, applies the latest immersive technologies to the process of ‘reminiscence therapy’. While the traditional approach draws on physical visual stimulus such as photo books, or even involves substantial investment in constructing full-scale sets that recreate nostalgic scenes, Virtue has developed a new type of memory portal using virtual reality 

It’s only now that the phone in your pocket is advanced enough and VR headsets are reducing in price that we can really democratise access to this type of impactful therapy,” Virtue‘s co-founder and CTO Scott Gorman says. Virtue’s app, LookBack VR, offers a wide variety of 360 VR content and filmic experiences which chime with the memories of the target age group of the patient – arranged by destination, theme, activity or decade. Viewers can choose from experiences ranging from spending time on Brighton beach in the 1970s, to finding themselves in a 1950s tearoom, and can create a personalised playlist or ‘itinerary for time travel’ with the help of their family or carer. Their companion can see their VR headset view on a companion app via tablet, along with a series of suggested questions to help stimulate relevant conversation about that era.

Our vision is for LookBack VR to become a global platform that can help people with dementia anywhere,” co-founder and CEO Arfa Rehman shares. “We are starting to seek partnerships with organisations and individuals to gather content from around the world.”


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