Scientists Study Whether Virtual Reality Can Prevent Memory Loss
For three days a week, Wayne Garcia has been taking part in a nontraditional exercise.
He starts by putting on virtual reality (VR) equipment on his head. He then gets on a specially designed exercise bicycle and starts pushing its pedals. Faster and faster he goes.
Garcia is taking part in a study at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. Researchers want to see if just a small amount of VR can help prevent memory loss as people age.
Garcia says he remembers how his parents and grandparents all suffered from dementia.
It's very scary that one day that could be me.
Garcia recalls his father once reading a newspaper upside down and almost setting the house on fire by putting a towel on a heater.
Just the sadness — you remember what your dad was like, what your mom was like when they were all good, and then the decline now. And now you're taking care of them rather than when they used to take care of you.
Garcia is taking part in the study to see if using virtual reality at the same time as physical exercise can help prevent dementia in the future.
Judy Pa is part of the team of researchers leading the study. She says the actual definition of "dementia is when a person is no longer able to take care of themselves, things like paying the bills, driving, cooking for themselves, dressing themselves."
She added that the break down and death of cells in the nervous system take 10 to 20 years.
Pa said that unlike usual games, VR provides a first-person, three-dimensional experience that is important to memory training.
Our goal is to prevent dementia (and) to prevent Alzheimer's disease. There are no effective treatments yet. We hope that we will get there eventually, but my perspective and the research that we do in my laboratory at USC is really surrounding prevention.
The VR study exercises the subjects' body and brain at the same time, testing the memory and decision-making part of their brain.
Subjects have to pedal on the exercise bike and keep their heart rate up. In the VR experience, they are trying to learn and remember directions while collecting food items, and then feeding the food to some animals.
Understanding changes in the brain that happen with exercise, changes in the brain that happen when you're in an enriched environment and putting those two together, and that's what our intervention is currently targeting.
Even if virtual reality can help, it may not be for everyone. In one study, four out of 40 people withdrew from the research because they reported motion sickness. Pa will be doing more tests over the next year with participants who are 50 to 80 years old to gather additional information.
Garcia is hopeful for what VR might mean for the future.
There might be a place where you could go, and you can get your daily dose of virtual reality and cardio to keep the mind going.
I'm Jonathan Evans.