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Helping stroke survivors translate VR into real life

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"Our ambitions are in delivering improvements for them with their aphasia."

“Sat on elephant. Swam on turtle. Dancing in Tardis.”

While this may sound like something from a particularly crazy dream, for stroke survivors, this is a reality – or rather virtual reality – which is delivering measurable benefits to their recovery.

Through accessing EVA Park, the world’s first multi-user online world, people with aphasia across the globe are being given unique opportunities to re-learn and practice their speech, while also developing social connections and confidence.

So while social interactions and venturing out to the shops may seem a daunting prospect in everyday life, in EVA Park, users can enjoy a carefree trip to the hairdresser, bar or disco, or even go dancing in the Tardis, should they wish.

And by being enabled to do so in the safety of a virtual environment, evidence is showing that this progress with speech is, for many users, being replicated in the real world.

“That’s the holy grail, for people to practice the contexts and develop their skills and then introduce them into real life,” says Professor Jane Marshall, who has led the research from the beginning of the project in 2012.

“So if you want to go to a cafe, you can practice in EVA Park and then translate that into a real life environment.”

And the statistics are showing that to be the case, with studies revealing many people with aphasia see an improvement in functional communication after using EVA Park, which has been pioneered by City, University of London.

Through the creation of avatars, which then live out whatever adventures they wish in EVA Park, interacting with fellow avatars along the way, improvements are being seen in areas of speech including story telling skills and word retrieval.

“We’ve had a very positive response but I think a big part of it is because it’s a huge laugh, it’s very sunny and joyful, as well as being slightly bonkers,” says Professor Marshall, whose background is in speech and language therapy.

“While it’s a simulation of a real world environment, you can also get the opportunity to do crazy things, such as our participant who sat on the elephant, swam on the turtle and danced in the Tardis.

“Your avatar can be whoever you want to be. You can go wild. We have some rather matronly ladies in their 60s whose avatars have mohican haircuts, and why not?

“But I think the impact of that can be very powerful – one man told us it was like being on holiday, there is the same kind of escapism through being in EVA Park from experiencing aphasia in everyday life.

“Another, who had paralysis down one side of his body after his stroke, told us that he loved how this wasn’t who he was in EVA Park and his avatar could walk, fly and roller skate.”

The development of EVA Park came from the recognition that an online-based activity may bring people together in ways that would not always happen in real life – an approach typified by the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you’re going to groups and have to travel some distance, that can be costly, and it can sometimes be difficult for therapists to get to patients if people live in remote areas of the world,” says Professor Marshall.

“In Australia, for example, we have people using EVA Park who live very remotely, so probably wouldn’t travel to use it, but because they can do it at home on their screen – it’s not an immersive experience, so they don’t even need a headset – it’s very accessible.

“Through operating in a virtual world, there are no restrictions, so it’s also a world away from the pandemic. And while many people have turned to technology over the past year, we have always recognised its benefits in therapy and that is why we created EVA Park.”

Since the development of EVA Park in 2012, the use of technology in therapy has become more widely recognised and used, which, says Professor Marshall, will continue to deliver benefits.

“I think technology in its widest sense has a huge contribution to make for people who have had a stroke,” she says.

“There are many mainstream technologies in use now, such as word prediction technology, which can help enormously. Therapists are using apps and technology much more than ever before, and that’s an important strand.

“And there are great benefits in delivering therapy sessions remotely through using Zoom, Skype or Teams, which are really being seen at the moment. So technology has a huge role to play.

“I think EVA Park occupies a place in that spectrum, but probably at the smaller end of the scale, and we inject a bit of fun in there too.”

While the platform has users from as far afield as the United States, Australia and the Bahamas and has been hailed for the quality of its creation and outcomes, Professor Marshall says the goal is improving the lives of its users rather than global expansion.

“We are international, but we are small. We’re university researchers rather than Apple and just don’t have the infrastructure to make the software available to a huge global user community,” she says.

“However, we are very happy with what we are doing and the groups we are working with, and our ambitions are in delivering improvements for them with their aphasia. If we are doing that, then we are very happy.”

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Learn more about virtual reality in rehab

Event is an opportunity to hear from expert Dr Katherine Dawson, Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist.

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An event later this month will give neuro-rehab professionals an opportunity to learn more about the use of virtual reality in the field. 

The virtual webinar, on 26th January at 1.20pm to 2.30pm, features an in-depth talk by Dr Katherine Dawson, Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist.

A Guide to Virtual Reality, which can be booked by emailing training@thinktherapy1st.co.uk, will cover:

– Growth of digital health

– Virtual Reality(VR) / Telerehabilitation evidence base

– Virtual tour of the Brain Recovery Zone VR platform

– Where does the Brain Recovery Zone sit in a clinical pathway

– Clinical outcomes, case studies, and research trial

Dr. Katherine Dawson has over 15 years experience working in various rehabilitation settings (both within the NHS and private sector) with individuals who have a wide range of neurological conditions.

She has a particular interest in cognitive rehabilitation, and working with individuals and families to manage emotional and behavioural changes following Acquired Brain Injury (ABI).

She is currently involved in research with the NHS regarding ABI and telerehabilitation, and has recently published a book exploring adjustment to brain injury from the perspectives of clients, family members and clinicians. 

In December 2017, Katherine set up a local neuro-rehab service (Sphere Rehab) with her business partner, focusing on community integration post ABI. She also co-founded the Brain Recovery Zone neuro rehab Virtual Reality platform in the summer of 2019. The team are commissioned by several local CCGs and also work within the private sector.

Ahead of the event, she said: “I just wanted to say a massive thank you to Think Therapy 1st for inviting me to talk about VR and the Brain Recovery Zone. Virtual Reality has great potential in neuro rehab – both to ‘up’ the dosage of rehab, in addition to promoting ongoing engagement and self management.

“I am really looking forward to delivering this webinar and discussing some of the clinical outcomes including the work completed together with Think Therapy 1st and other clients.”

Helen Merfield, Managing Director, Think Therapy 1st, which is organising the event, said: “I am really excited about our VR event we have used Dr Dawson on a number of cases with amazing results and her VR really has changed lives.

“So much so that we are partnering with her company Sphere as a preferred provider for both VR through Brain Recovery Zone and Clinical and Neuro psychology. Close working ties can only improve outcomes which for both our companies are already impressive.”

To register for the event email training@thinktherapy1st.co.uk.

 

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Neuropsychology

Sport and exercise ‘have key role in mental health and wellbeing’

The Moving for Mental Health report highlights the role of physical activity in supporting mental resilience and recovery

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Physical activity and sport can play a key role in supporting mental health and wellbeing and helping people to recover from the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report has concluded. 

The Moving for Mental Health report includes better training for health professionals to prescribe movement as a means of effectively tackling the vast growth in people experiencing mental health issues. 

Produced following the onset of the pandemic, the report sets out evidence that developing a healthy relationship with physical activity and being involved in linked programmatic interventions and social networks is beneficial, can improve people’s mental health and wellbeing, and help tackle social isolation.

The project, by the Sport for Development Coalition and Mind, highlights how COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of single-sector responses to addressing complex mental health problems and tackling growing health inequalities. 

The report recommends physical activity and community sport be further embedded in health policy and integrated care systems while calling for an enhanced role for experts by experience and diverse communities leading in the design, implementation and evaluation of future strategy and programming.

Launched at an online meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sport, it is also designed to support and inspire public bodies, funders, commissioners and policy-makers as well as community-based programme providers aiming to enhance the impact of movement for mental health.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: “While Mind’s research suggests that half of adults and young people have relied on physical activity to cope during the pandemic, we also know that physical activity levels for people with long-term health conditions, including mental health problems, have declined. 

“Considering how vital physical activity is for many people’s mental health, it is clear that we need a collective effort to reach those who need support the most.”

Andy Reed, chair of the Sport for Development Coalition, said: “This report is aimed at supporting and informing policy-makers about how we can maximise the contribution of targeted sport and physical activity-based interventions at this crucial time.”

The research was led by a team of academic researchers from Edge Hill University and Loughborough University, and draws on evidence and submissions from over 70 organisations including sport and mental health organisations, public bodies and Government departments.

Andy Smith, professor of sport and physical activity at Edge Hill University, said: “The impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. 

“It has brought to light the significant mental health inequalities which existed prior to COVID-19, but which have since worsened further, especially among those living in under-served and low-income communities. 

“Our research is calling on the Government and other public bodies to invest in the provision of movement opportunities for mental health across multiple policy sectors, and to use the evidence presented as a basis for making more effective policy decisions which benefit everyone’s mental health and which tackle deep-seated inequalities.”

Moving for Mental Health is the first policy report in a series being published throughout 2022 by the Coalition and relevant partners. The reports are aimed at maximising the contribution of targeted sport-based interventions to helping ‘level up’ communities facing disadvantage and deprivation and tackling deep-seated health and societal inequalities which have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

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Calvert Trust announces new trustees

Louise Dunn, Judith Gate, Emily Flynn and Victoria Notman bring their expertise to the Trust, which also runs Calvert Reconnections

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The Lake District Calvert Trust (LDCT), which runs brain injury rehabilitation centre Calvert Reconnections, has started 2022 by announcing the appointment of four new trustees.

Louise Dunn, Judith Gate, Emily Flynn and Victoria Notman will bring their respective expertise to supporting the further development of the charity and its vital services.

Louise Dunn

Louise Dunn is a communications consultant and academic with over 25 years’ experience of management and leadership roles in the pharmaceutical industry and at Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust and Charity.

Commenting on her appointment, Louise said: “As a Keswick resident, I’m delighted to be able to get involved with this extraordinary organisation, that has such a positive impact for people living with disabilities in our community and all over the UK.

“I am looking forward to learning more about how I can help the team and contributing to their exciting plans for the future.”

Judith Gate has extensive experience in the charity and public sectors including leading the volunteering and customer care functions for a national charity.

She currently leads a continuous improvement programme with a focus on delivering efficiency and improved customer experience through business process improvement and digital transformation.

Judith Gate

Judith said: “I applied to be trustee because I wanted to use my skills to deliver as much positive impact as possible. As an outdoor enthusiast I feel a genuine connection to the Calvert Trust‘s mission of making outdoor activity accessible to everyone

“I am really excited to join the board and look forward to using my knowledge and experience to help support the Trust achieve its ambitions over the coming years.”

Emily Flynn has over 21 years’ experience as a military officer and communications-electronics engineer across a wide spectrum of business areas including: senior leadership/board-level management; digital optimisation; resource planning; engineering, operations and risk management; trusteeship; and mountaineering leadership.

Commenting on her appointment, Emily said: “I am delighted to become a trustee of the Lake District Calvert Trust.

“The military introduced me to the benefits of outdoor education as a means of expanding personal confidence and stretching comfort zones in a controlled environment. It also led me to become a mountaineer.

“I hope to be able to bring my previous experience as a leader, mountaineer, engineer and trustee to help the Calvert Trust

Emily Flynn

continue to deliver amazing outdoor education to its participants and to help it grow over the next few years.”

Victoria Notman is legal director at the employment team at Burnetts Solicitors in Carlisle and has over 20 years’ experience as an employment lawyer.

She also has a first-class honours degree in physiotherapy and experience in the rehabilitation and development of adults and young people with mild to severe physical and mental impairments and learning needs.

Victoria said: “I am looking forward to applying my knowledge and skills to become integrated into the fabric of the Trust to such a degree that all the experience I have to offer can really make a difference to the lives and happiness of those accessing Calvert Lakes and Calvert Reconnections.”

Welcoming the charity’s new trustees, Giles Mounsey-Heysham, chairman of the LDCT Trustees, said: “After a detailed recruitment process, we are delighted to welcome our new Trustees.

Victoria Notman

“Together they bring a wealth of skills, experience and shared passion to the Lake District Calvert Trust. We welcome their contributions moving forward.”

The Lake District Calvert Trust has been supporting people with disabilities from its specialist Calvert Lakes residential centre and accessible riding centre near Keswick in the Lake District for almost 45 years.

Calvert Lakes has grown from being the UK’s first dedicated activity centre for people with disabilities, to welcoming around 3,500 visitors to stay each year.

These include individuals, family groups, specialist schools, accessible sports clubs, disability charity groups, supported living organisations and care homes across the UK.

Last year, the charity also opened Calvert Reconnections, the UK’s first residential brain injury rehabilitation programme combining traditional clinical therapies with physical activity in the outdoors.

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