The challenges of dementia are numerous. Some of the most prevalent and devastating are depression, anxiety, apathy, agitation, loneliness, and boredom. How can we help?

Reminiscence therapy — using stimuli from a patient’s past — music therapy, art therapy, and other non-pharmacological therapies have been linked to improvements in mood, communication, concentration, and overall well-being. Concurrently, 3D-platform video games and cognitive rehabilitation can enhance mood and improve cognition. Virtual reality (VR) can take these benefits to the next level.

Memorcize is a responsive VR application designed specifically for individuals with dementia. The software is being developed in Unity — a game engine with a C# scripting backend — and will be deployed to the Oculus Quest.

The immediate objective is to provide a safe and mentally stimulating source of entertainment in order to alleviate the afore-described common challenges (boredom, agitation, loneliness, etc.).

Memorcize can be broken down into the following core features:
(1) Nostalgic 1950s-70s environments populated with period-appropriate characters and music.
(2) Behaviorally- and psychologically-focused non-pharmacological therapies for dementia.
(3) Gamified cognitive exercise coupled with fulfilling positive affirmation.
(4) Ease of use (i.e. bypassing the traditional VR controllers, which are often confusing for this population).

Down the line, the following features are planned to be incorporated:
(1) Exercise.
(2) Data collection for diagnostic and disease progression tracking purposes, using metrics such as eye movements (which have been fairly extensively researched in connection to Alzheimer’s Disease), in-game scoring, heart rate, and blood pressure. This would require further clinical research post-prototype.

 

What inspired you (or your team)?

During the winter of my sophomore year, I reached out to one of the Cleveland Clinic’s department heads, who headed my previous summer internship in neurological movement disorders. Over lunch, we discussed my ambitions, my aspirations, and my deepening interest in the thief that plagues my family. I was then connected with the department head of the Clinic’s Center for Brain Health, which focuses entirely on dementia.

For the vast majority of dementia’s causes — be it Alzheimer’s, Vascular, or Frontotemporal Dementia — there is no cure. And I knew that going in. But walking into those doors on my first day in June, I never would have anticipated the vacuum of hope. Every drug was symptomatic, ineffective, and/or came with serious strings attached. How about dietary changes? Insufficient evidence to make a clinical recommendation. And exercise? At best, a tool for the maintenance and management of symptoms.

What if we avoided the expensive and unpredictable drug pipeline all together? Sure, we might not attack the disease at its root, but can we still make a significant impact on people’s quality of life?

Assistive technology for dementia-care has traditionally seen low-adoption rates. The reasons are complex and varied on a case-by-case basis, but a common theme did emerge in my research: the true needs and desires of the end-population, those actually facing dementia, are not prioritized in the technology’s design.

You see, people with dementia are already at risk for low self-esteem and loss of independence and a sense of self. Instead of recognizing and mitigating these phenomena, technology tends to maximize them. Take, for example, indoor security cameras that caregivers may use to monitor individuals with cognitive impairment. Although often necessary to their safety, the knowledge of being constantly watched can be, at a minimum, uncomfortable or worse.

One day, though, my mentor at the Clinic recalled watching a video of an older gentleman “biking” through the streets of his hometown via a spherical projection of Google Street View, a virtual reality of sorts. Already vaguely familiar with the technology, I began researching its medical uses. And sure enough, there were applications implementing some of the very non-pharmacological therapies I had uncovered in my previous research; chiefly, reminiscence therapy — using different stimuli from the patient’s past, like old photos, to trigger positive memories and conversation.

But these applications, though effective, didn’t go far enough. The experiences were either not widely relatable, lacked interactivity — the key to immersion and greater behavioral, psychological, and cognitive impact — or were limited in some other respect. I then began developing my own concepts, and, with the help of incredibly generous mentors and advisors, arrived at the innovation featured here, Memorcize.