In dementia cases, the instinct to look after and nurture something or someone can be among the last things to leave a person. People with the neurodegenerative condition may hold dolls while in care, for example, as their brain recognises them as objects requiring their care and attention.
While pets can also help to satisfy this need, taking care of them may be too much responsibility for many with the disease. A new solution is emerging, however, in the form of robotic animals.
At the heart of this robot-revolution is Deborah Spratley, founder of Plymouth-based RoboPets, which distributes these devices to care homes across the UK.
The soft and cuddly animals have shown their power to transform dementia and Parkinson’s patients’ quality of life – but are far more than mere toys. They utilise the latest robotic technology to respond to their carers actions, as well as making life-like noises.
They help to foster a sense of responsibility, and empowerment, allowing patients to forget about their conditions and feel in control of their lives.
Deborah says: “The pets completely change a person’s mood. One of the last things that leaves a person with dementia is this feeling of nurturing but in their day-to-day lives they can’t do that. They are the ones being taken care of.
“By introducing the pets – and some dementia patients will believe they are real – it empowers them as they think they are taking care of and loving something, where normally they are the vulnerable ones.
“Even I sometimes forget they’re not real because they respond to you, so when you touch and stroke them it’s quite wonderful.
“The response people have from them is great, they’re happy and smiling and some of them just come alive again. I’ve seen this for myself in my local hospital.”
While the technology is largely well received, Deborah has faced an uphill battle in persuading some professionals of its benefits.
She recalls one occasion when she conducted a trial visit at a local care home, where senior staff were initially unconvinced of the idea.
A resident with dementia, who was often unresponsive, was given one of the robotic cats, and it instantly changed her mood and behaviour.
She was happy and rejuvenated and made such a connection with the pet that Deborah didn’t have the heart to take it away from her.
“In the beginning it was difficult. But because of the word of mouth people now know the huge benefits.
“Loved ones who buy one for their mother or father in a care home can really show everyone the benefits and now I have people from the NHS buying them.”
A number of care facilities and hospitals in the UK and Europe have looked beyond the scepticism to embrace RoboPets as a means of improving their patient’s quality of life.
A sense of companionship and the feeling of being able to understand and love something that isn’t too complicated is what draws many towards pets. And it’s not so different with their robotic counterparts.
They too have helped patients to feel less isolated during the pandemic and brought some comfort to those cut off from their loved ones.
Alongside older users, demand is growing for them in terms of helping children with special needs and mental health problems, offering a relaxing device which teaches responsibility.
There is also a specific model for children called Purrble – a small fluffy creature designed to help ease anxiety and stress.
Currently RoboPets supplies robotic cats and dogs, however it is soon looking to branch out to other animals with a rabbit in development and a bird set to hit the UK soon.
It is a family run company, with Deborah’s daughter Kerrie helping with operations and her 88-year-old mother having her own robotic pet.
Through its good work the organisation has attracted a lot of media attention, such as starring in a special feature on BBC News which skyrocketed sales.
“They showed one of the care homes in Essex we supply,” Deborah says. “That was where it stemmed from and the demand was just phenomenal, every second people were ordering from us.
“Prior to the pandemic I was going out to care homes and hospitals on a one-woman mission to promote them and doing exhibitions.
“But for that publicity to be there is just tremendous and it’s wonderful that more people are aware of RoboPets.”
Classical music and Alzheimer’s – could it improve memory?
Could classical music improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairment?
A three-year study – The Mozart Effect and Memory in patients with cognitive impairment – will assess that exact topic, with music anecdotally being said to have benefit on those living with such conditions.
The project, from the Cognitive Neurolab at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), will investigate whether music can be used to facilitate or enhance learning in those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or mild Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
It will also look at which aspects of music are key in establishing a cognitive benefit, so which kinds of music – relaxing or vitalising – and what times are most useful; for example, in the phase in which we learn new information or in that in which we retrieve information we have previously learned.
Previous studies have indicated that exposure to music can increase performance in learning and attention-related tasks, but this will look at the most effective kind for memory.
“The majority of these studies were on healthy people and we don’t know if music could be a complementary tool for cognitively stimulating those with memory deficits,” says Dr Marco Calabria, leading the project.
“These neurodegenerative diseases are characterised by difficulties in forming new memories, and music could be one way of helping to consolidate new learning.”
The study will involve patients from both Barcelona’s Hospital de Sant Pau and from SINGULAR Musica & Alzheimer, a centre in Barcelona specialising in the rehabilitation and cognitive stimulation of people with Alzheimer’s through music.
In the study’s first phase, participants will carry out memory-related tasks with classical music in the background. They will have to memorise unknown faces and remember them afterwards.
Dr Calabria explains that classical music is being used because “it’s a kind of music that is characterised by being both relaxing and vitalizing, and has proven to be the most effective in giving memory a boost.
“What’s more, the fact that it has no lyrics means there is less of the interference that verbal information can cause with regard to the content that participants will have to learn in the memory tasks.”
In phase two, researchers will use music familiar to participants to see whether the fact they like it could deliver emotional, and therefore memory-related, benefits.
‘We want to be part of the solution – for Bill and future generations’
Dr Judith Gates speaks to NR Times about this weekend’s football match organised by Head for Change, which will be the first ever to involve no heading of the ball
The first football match which involves no heading of the ball will help raise awareness and stimulate conversation about the impact of head injury in sport, its organisers have said.
The 11-a-side match, involving 25 former professional footballers, has been hailed as an experiment as researchers try to discover whether the game can function without heading, in light of ever-growing research which links football to neurodegenerative disease.
It is organised by Head for Change, the organisation helping to drive forward calls for changes to player safety, and will only allow headers in the penalty box for the first half and then restrict all heading during the second half.
It will be held at Spennymoor Town Football Club, in County Durham, on Sunday at 3pm.
The event forms part of the “legacy” for former Spennymoor Town and Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates, who has sports-related dementia, and whose wife Dr Judith Gates is co-founder and chair of Head for Change.
“When Bill received his diagnosis in 2017, we made two promises to him,” Dr Gates tells NR Times.
“One was to optimise his life and do all we could to make his life as good as we could as a dad, grandad and great grandad, and the second was for his legacy, to do everything we could to be part of the solution for future generations of footballers and their families not to have to face this.
“The purpose of this match is to raise awareness of the dangers of heading the ball and to provide alternative discussion with purpose. It’s an experiment to see what the game will look like.
“To be clear, Head for Change is not suggesting heading should be banned, that is a decision for football’s governing authorities, not for us.
“But we want people to realise the impact. Bill was a Titan to me in his 20s, fit and indestructible, so if this disease can do this to him, it can happen to anyone.”
The match has attracted widespread media attention and comes after an array of stark academic findings, including the research from Professor Willie Stewart that footballers are up to five times more likely to suffer from dementia than the general population.
“Part of why I co-founded Head for Change was to be part of the solution,” says Dr Gates.
“We’re extremely aware that there is a lot of bashing going on and everyone is saying it’s someone else’s fault, but lessons must be learnt from the past.
“For too long we have been assured that our brain was safe in our skull, but we are increasingly understanding how the brain works and how it can be damaged through contact sports. Education will continue to play a very important role in what happens going forward.”
The match itself – which will also be raising money for The Solan Connor Fawcett Cancer Trust – will be held at Spennymoor Town’s stadium, The Brewery Field.
The town is where Dr Gates grew up and met her husband, and in a quirk of fate, Spennymoor Town’s chief executive Brad Groves used to work for Bill as a warehouseman when Bill owned a chain of sports stores.
The club, alongside those playing in the match, have been hugely supportive of their ambitions, says Dr Gates.
“We’ve been amazed at the extent to which they have stepped up, Spennymoor have been phenomenal. Brad has been so kind in offering whatever he can do to help. We are hugely appreciative,” she says.
“The players taking part are excited to be part of it, they may not be able to use one of their many footballing skills but they can use the rest of them.
“Spennymoor is a small town with a big heart and we are so pleased to be able to hold this match, and particularly here, at Bill’s first club.”
EEG test could increase early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s
A simple but revolutionary approach to early Alzheimer’s diagnosis is being pioneered, in a breakthrough that could pave the way for improved outcomes for individuals who develop the disease in the future.
The research uses a new method to passively measure brain activity. It involves participants looking at a series of flashing images on a computer over two minutes, whilst their brain waves are measured using an EEG cap.
New research on this, published today on World Alzheimer’s Day, shows that the technique is highly effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves which occur when a person remembers an image.
Crucially, the technique is completely passive, meaning the person doing the test doesn’t need to understand the task or respond, and may not even be aware of their memory response.
The team behind the ‘Fastball EEG’ technology – led by psychologists at the University of Bath and funded by the dementia charity BRACE – say the approach is cheap, portable and relies on pre-existing technology already available in hospitals, making it easily scalable.
They are now beginning to use Fastball EEG in a study of the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease in collaboration with the Research Institute for the Care of Older People (RICE) and the Bristol Brain Centre at Southmead Hospital.
Alzheimer’s is the underlying cause of approximately 60 per cent of dementia, with an estimated prevalence rate in Europe and North America of 5 to 7 per cent of the population. Estimates suggest the disease costs the UK economy around £26 billion a year, with costs expected to rise as an ageing population will see numbers increasing.
Alzheimer’s disease is currently diagnosed using a combination of subjective and objective reports of cognitive decline, often involving memory tests administered in a clinic.
These tests are prone to various biases, including assessment anxiety, but also require verbal and written communication abilities which make them ineffective for certain people.
By knowing more about people’s disease at an earlier stage, drugs can be prescribed earlier when they may be more effective, such as the recently-approved Aducanumab, the first disease modifying treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Lifestyle interventions can also be implemented to help slow disease progression. Current diagnosis for Alzheimer’s typically occurs late in the progression of the disease.
In the near future, the researchers hope that Fastball EEG could help lower the age of diagnosis by up to five years. Longer-term, they say it may offer opportunities to expand this further. They liken their future aspirations for its application to current screening tools used to test for high blood pressure in middle age.
Lead researcher and cognitive neuroscientist Dr George Stothart, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, explains: “Fastball offers a genuinely novel way of measuring how our brain is functioning.
“The person being assessed doesn’t need to understand the test, or even respond, they simply watch a screen of flashing images and by the way we manipulate the images that appear we can learn an enormous amount about what their brain is, or is not, able to do.
“The tests we currently use to diagnose Alzheimer’s miss the first 20 years of the disease, which means we are missing huge opportunities to help people.
“For decades now we have had tools in scientific research that have been able to probe how the brain is working, but we have never made the leap to a viable clinical tool for the objective assessment of cognition. We hope that Fastball may be that leap.
“We are at a really exciting stage in its development. We are testing the tool in earlier and earlier stages of Alzheimer’s and expanding the type of brain function it can measure, to include language and visual processing.
“This will help us to not only understand Alzheimer’s but also the many other less common forms of dementia.
“Ultimately the Holy Grail of a tool like this would be a dementia screening tool used in middle age for everyone, regardless of symptoms, in the same way we test for high blood pressure. We are a long way from that, but this is a step towards that goal.”
Mark Poarch, chief executive of BRACE, added: “We were delighted to be able to fund Dr Stothart’s research, which clearly has exciting potential.
“It could result in an early diagnostic tool with benefit for innumerable people and help turn the tide against dementia. More generally, we have seen in the last year what happens when the world ploughs resources into medical research to find a vaccine for a dangerous virus, and we now need to give dementia researchers the resources they need to achieve comparable breakthroughs.”
Dr Stothart and colleagues will soon start work on a significant £100,000 longitudinal study of early dementia funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences. The study will involve testing patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment using the new Fastball tool.
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