Diagnosing Dementia by Getting Lost in Virtual Worlds

A new use of an existing technology can help identify cognitive decline

Posted Aug 27, 2014

A man uses a virtual reality console

Navigation in the VE-HuNTsystem

Virtual Reality (VR) has been used as a tool for mental health treatment for decades. The technology allows a therapist to immerse a patient into a virtual environment over which they have complete control. In this virtual world they can conduct experiments that would be too risky, expensive, or difficult in a real world setting.

Research in this area is active, and in the past few months I've seen several interesting new applications of this technology. The VE-HuNT System, from the UC San Diego department of Biological Sciences, recently caught my eye. In this case, VR is being used as a tool for diagnosing dementia.

One aspect of dementia is that sufferers are prone to getting lost. This is because the ability to navigate is often impaired at the early stages of cognitive decline. Obviously, it would be too dangerous to conduct navigation tests in a real world setting. Furthermore, it would be difficult to monitor a patient in the state of being lost without interupting the test. VR provides solutions to both of these problems. In the VE-HuNT system, users navigate a virtual environment while their actions are recorded. According to the project lead Professor Eduardo Macagno:

The idea is to give an older person a series of tests and see where they fail. We record how long it takes them, and which paths they take.

An analysis of the results can give insight into the user's cognitive functioning. This approach is less expensive than many of the existing diagnostic tools, such as MRI or PET scans.

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of using technology as part of mental health interventions just for the sake of it. There needs to be a compelling reason. For example, when treating social anxiety it is better to conduct behavioral experiments in the real world than in a virtual one. However, the VE-HuNT system is a wonderful example of a situation where technology offers a distinct advantage over real world experiments. In particular, VR can be used to prevent accidents before they happen.

In my upcoming posts I will be looking at other innovative uses of VR technology, such as how it can be used to treat addiction.

Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, is a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford and co-founder of AI-Therapy, a developer online treatment programs and tools for psychologists. Follow her on twitter @drfjola.

About the Author

Fjola Helgadottir, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Clinician at the University of Oxford, a registered clinical psychologist, technology enthusiast, and co-founder of AI-Therapy.

More Posts