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Experiencing Dementia in Virtual Reality

Yasuko Matsuoka

Feb. 14, 2017

Virtual reality may not yet offer a cure for dementia, but it's letting ordinary people experience what it's like to live with the disease.

People with dementia often experience memory impairment while other symptoms include hallucinations and delusions. The condition is difficult for non-sufferers to picture, but ordinary people can now get some insight into dementia, with the help of virtual-reality technology.

Medical and nursing professionals who work with people with dementia gathered in Nagoya last month to get a deeper understanding of the disease. When participants put on a headset and headphones, they stepped into the world of dementia.

In one scenario, participants wake up on a train and they don't know where they are. They have to transfer, but don't remember where to do that.

The device offers a 360-degree view, making the simulation more realistic.

"I felt even more uncomfortable because I could actually look around at my surroundings," said one participant.

Tomofumi Tanno, who is in his 40s and has early-onset Alzheimer's, also tried the device.

"I have had similar experiences many times. I have to change trains on my way to work, but I was totally at a loss what to do one day. I burst into tears and begged for help from a station employee," he says.

Tadamichi Shimogawara organizes and promotes the initiative. He runs homes for the elderly and has met a number of people with dementia. His experiences made him want to help deepen the public's understanding.

That's when he came up with the idea of using virtual reality technology. He set up a new division within his company in March last year. Staff who used to design housing for the elderly had to learn how to edit and produce videos from scratch.

The division has created 4 video clips so far, based on the experiences of people with dementia. Professional actors make the videos feel even more realistic.

"We believe you'll be able to take better care of people with dementia once you've experienced for yourself what kind of world those people live in and what problems they encounter," Shimogawara says.

One of the video clips is designed to simulate visual hallucinations, and the participants tried this experience as well. While visiting a friend's home, someone behind the door suddenly disappears or a musical instrument in the corner turns into a person.

"Everything was so real that I felt scared. I was able to learn what it's like," said one participant.

Naomi Higuchi wrote the script the video at Shimogawara's request. Higuchi was diagnosed 4 years ago with a type of dementia called dementia with Lewy bodies. The symptoms include visual hallucinations, and she wanted people to recognize the symptoms correctly so she tried to recreate her experiences as exactly as possible.

Higuchi says it's only natural if some people scream when they see the hallucinations, because they look so real.

"People with dementia cannot tell whether what they're seeing is real or a hallucination. So we always think, 'Is this real?' or 'What is this?'" Higuchi says. "Caretakers say things like: 'Don't be silly' or 'There aren't any insects in your food, so eat up.' But it's really stressful to hear that, and can make our condition worse."

Atsushi Kasama is a doctor who specializes in dementia. He says many people don't realize that symptoms include hallucinations. He hopes virtual reality will help medical professionals understand the symptoms properly so they can diagnose it correctly.

"A lot of people with dementia experience hallucinations, but this hasn't been widely recognized," Kasama says. "It's important to properly convey the fact that some types of dementia involve hallucinations. That recognition will lead to correct diagnosis."

Virtual reality may not offer a cure for dementia but it could make life better for those living with the disease, by letting others share and understand their experiences.


NHK World's Yasuko Matsuoka, who researched the virtual-reality initiative, joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: So Yasuko, this technology seems to have a lot of potential.

Matsuoka: People with dementia sometimes wander off or use abusive language. Other people may be confused about why they do this. But the man who invented the VR simulator says the behavior of dementia sufferers is strongly influenced by their surroundings, so he wants to make society more accommodating for them.

Shibuya: The doctor in the video said the simulator can lead to better diagnosis. Can you give us an example?

Matsuoka: One condition where it's useful is dementia with Lewy bodies.
Some people with this disease have hallucinations, but they don't always lose their cognitive functions. So they can be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, which has similar symptoms. Some are given the wrong drugs and suffer side effects. Experts think more doctors could give the right diagnosis if they knew there's a type of dementia that causes hallucinations.

Shibuya: The video dialogue is all Japanese. Will there be other languages?

Matsuoka: Yes, the inventor plans to make a version in English. He hopes it will help people in other parts of Asia by showing how dementia is being tackled here in Japan.