Virtual reality might one day help train medical students how to best care for dementia patients, a new study suggests.
Researchers used virtual reality simulations to help prepare about 20 high school students in Chicago to interact with seniors with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia in an art therapy program called Bringing Art to Life.
The simulations included "being" a 74-year-old black man with suspected mild cognitive impairment, as well as vision and hearing loss, or a middle-aged Hispanic woman as she progresses through Alzheimer's disease.
"What we're hearing from the students is that experiencing the virtual reality training before they volunteer improves their empathy and increases enthusiasm for working with the seniors -- two documented outcomes of our program," said researcher Dr. Daniel Potts. He's a neurologist at the University of Alabama who created Bringing Art to Life after his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"It also may decrease the stigma and their negative attitudes about older people," and has increased students' interest in health care careers, Potts added.
For those who have already chosen careers in health care, Rush University in Chicago will recruit 60 medical and pharmacy students and research assistants in September for virtual reality training and the Bringing Art to Life program.
"It's interesting that the creators of the modules also highlight other issues that some people experience as they age, including communicating inappropriately with others because they may not be able to see or hear well, in addition to the memory problems that are common for persons with Alzheimer's," said Dr. Neelum Aggarwal, from Rush University Medical Center.
She helped to develop one of the virtual reality modules.
"I'm often asked -- what does it feel like to have dementia? These virtual reality modules can help others experience that," Aggarwal said in an Alzheimer's Association news release. "For the students, it's a good check to see if they have empathy for their patients and are aware of any biases they may have towards people with dementia."
The findings were presented Monday at the Alzheimer's Association annual meeting, in Chicago. Such research is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on dementia.