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How Virtual Reality Could Help Diagnose Dementia

Instead of video games, this new virtual reality system catches dementia.
August 20, 2014, 3:31pm
The CAVE virtual reality environment. Image: Wikimedia Commons

When diagnosing and treating memory failure, particularly disorders like dementia, doctors often assess how patients navigate exterior and interior spaces such as streets or buildings, to see how they react.

From there, they can usually see if the patient is afflicted with a disorder. But it's tricky work finding adult sufferers of memory loss who are getting "lost" in real-time. That's where new research utilizing virtual reality comes in to help.


The VE-HuNT System (Virtual Environment Human Navigation Task) is the research project of UC San Diego Biological Sciences Professor Eduardo Macagno, a virtual reality designer working at the intersection of architecture, neuroscience and cognitive science.

Macagno's system marks yet another entry in virtual reality's growing presence in various fields of medical research

Housed at the university's Qualcomm Institute, VE-HuNT is an immersive hardware-software system that tests subjects with possible memory loss in a "human-scale, interactive, virtual-reality-based 'room.'"

Macagno's system marks yet another entry in virtual reality's growing presence in various fields of medical research, which finds University of Southern California's  Institute for Creative Technologies using virtual scenarios to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not to mention, Dr. Giuseppe Riva's theory that virtual reality can be used to treat obesity and other eating disorders.

VE-HuNT will either unfold inside Qualcomm Institute's NexCAVE, a 3D virtual reality system built of nine HDTV panels, or StarCAVE, a five-sided immersive virtual reality room, in which scientific models and animations can be projected in stereo, 360 degrees, and even onto the floor. Judging from an image of VE-HuNT (below), the interface vaguely resembles the arcade racing games that simulate a racecar cockpit.

Inside the system, subjects interact with a steering wheel and gas pedal, making their way through the space, and performing tasks such as finding colored floor tiles "with or without navigational cues."


Since seniors suffer the most from memory loss, Macagno chose the steering wheel over a video game-like controller because of user familiarity. In other words, senior citizens aren't playing video games, so don't baffle them with an X-Box controller.

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

VE-HuNT is low-cost, according to researchers, with its components available off-the-shelf. They also said that it could fit in many neurological or clinical facilities that run cognitive tests.

Researchers are also considering the use of Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets to diagnose memory loss, but Macagno worries about effects such as vertigo and loss of peripheral vision, which is vital to human navigation, especially in the case of seniors.

Macagno and his team are currently planning the first trial of VE-HuNT, which will assess 20 to 30 adult subjects in various states of cognitive decline. They're also currently building new software for the trial, including an algorithm "derived from electro-oculography (EOG) data [measuring eye movement] recorded synchronously in the StarCAVE."

This new data will prove useful in learning how test subjects track moving objects, while also providing researchers with a window into the user's "visual attention." All of this data will be measured against control subjects.

While it's understandable that Macagno would want to avoid Oculus Rift with senior test subjects because of vertigo concerns, and perhaps even the overwhelming surreality of the headset's environments, placing octogenarians with varying states of cognitive decline inside other immersive virtual realities is also a gamble.

Senior users might be able to better absorb virtual realities mapped onto interior spaces by NexCAVE or StarCAVE as opposed to the enclosed worlds of Oculus Rift. But it's not as if most seniors have much familiarity with these types of systems, unless they've experienced a heady, futuristic art installation.

Eventually, those suffering from dementia and other types of memory loss could become familiar with VR headsets. Macagno would do well to include the Oculus Rift in his virtual reality arsenal, too. At the very least he'll save himself some time and effort for when VR headsets become commonplace.

Either way, it's encouraging to see that Macagno, with his background in neuroscience and cognitive science, is trying to harness virtual reality for something other than entertainment, but for the greater good.