Research Areas

Immersive Virtual Reality as a Cognitive Treatment tool for Alzheimer’s Disease

‘Use it or Lose it.’ It’s a simple enough expression, one that applies to many areas of our lives. We believe that this expression holds special significance to the hundreds of thousands of people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in North America each year.

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Alzheimer’s is devastating for patients and their families, and there is currently no cure. But, we have developed a cutting-edge Virtual Reality tool that individuals with dementia can use to help strengthen their brains. Most importantly, our tool requires absolutely no computer skills or experience. It is completely naturalistic and intuitive because it captures the user’s actual real-world motion.

Virtual Reality

Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

In our lab, we investigate how Virtual Reality video games can help diagnose Alzheimer’s, by detecting losses in spatial navigation. One major problem is that elderly users often have difficulty interacting with virtual environments: they have a hard time with joysticks or gamepads, and have trouble buying into Virtual Reality environments that are shown on TVs and computer monitors.

We address these these difficulties with two devices: our custom wheelchair, and a Virtual Reality headset. Our wheelchair captures a user’s motion in the real world, and translates it to the virtual world. This makes it extremely intuitive; to move in the environment, the user simply needs to sit in the chair, and shuffle around. They can look around and feel totally immersed in our virtual environment, thanks to the headset.

Our studies involve navigating inside a virtual building. The user is shown the building from the outside, where a target window is marked with an X. Then, the X is removed, and they are instructed to enter the building and go to the correct floor and find the correct window, from the inside.

Virtual Reality

Our computer program can score the user’s spatial navigation based on how many errors they make in trying to get to the correct window.

Alzheimer’s Treatment

We are investigating the applications of our VR environment for treatment purposes, too. So far, we have run two case-studies exploring the potential of this idea, but are pursuing it further with larger trials.

In the case-studies, two people at different stages of Alzheimer’s Disease were trained in two different VR programs. The first person was a man at a very early stage of Alzheimer’s. We trained him to navigate and find targets in the regular VR Building, as described above. The second person was a man with late-stage Alzheimer’s, and was trained to navigate in a virtual replica of a typical North American home, following a virtual dog as a guide. The results show that both peopel learned a new path in the VR environment, but the improvement in the person with early-stage Alzheimer's was much more significant than that of the person with late-stage Alzheimer’s. In addition, the early-stage person’s primary caregiver reported benefits in his life at home. He was happier, had a better memory, and had better concentration and navigation while driving. We followed up with the early-stage person after a few months, and found reduced performance in the VR Building and other tests, indicating that the effects of treatment can wear off after inactivity.

Virtual Reality

Here is a video from an older version of our exprience:

Some of our related publications using Virtual Reality are:

Byagowi, A., Mohaddes, D., & Moussavi, Z. (2014). Design and Application of a Novel Virtual Reality Navigational Technology (VRNChair). Journal of Experimental Neuroscience, 8, 7–14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4122530/

Byagowi, A., & Moussavi, Z. (2012). Design of a virtual reality navigational (VRN) experiment for assessment of egocentric spatial cognition. Proceedings of the Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, EMBS, 4812–4815. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23367004

Ranjbar, P.O., Byagowi, A., Kelly, D. M., & Moussavi, Z. (2016). Introducing a New Age and Cognition-sensitive Measurement for Assessing Spatial Orientation using a Landmark-less Virtual Reality Navigational Task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1–35. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27156658

White, P. J., Byagowi, A., & Moussavi, Z. (2015). Effect of Viewing Mode on Pathfinding in Immersive Virtual Reality. In Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBC), 2015 37th Annual International Conference of the IEEE (p. TBA). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26737323

Zen, D., Byagowi, A., Garcia, M., Kelly, D. M., Lithgow, B., & Moussavi, Z. (2013). The perceived orientation in people with and without Alzheimer’s. In International IEEE/EMBS Conference on Neural Engineering, NER (pp. 460–463).  http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=6695971