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Mynd Games: How virtual reality could help dementia, Parkinson's and even vertigo

Diving into my first virtual reality experience I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. In the blink of an eye I found myself in the cockpit of a Blue Angel, soaring through the sky. My head was in the clouds while my feet were firmly on the ground.

Diving into my first virtual reality experience I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. In the blink of an eye I found myself in the cockpit of a Blue Angel, soaring through the sky. My head was in the clouds while my feet were firmly on the ground. As I became engulfed in the experience, memories of my childhood came flooding back—of family days out at air shows: sitting on my father’s shoulders staring up into the sky, eating cotton candy I shared with my sister, climbing into an old plane repurposed as a play area. Treasured moments I had forgotten long ago.

An assisted living resident, Betty Lee, has a similar tale to tell. One day, submerged 20 feet below water and swimming with dolphins, she had the most vivid recollection. “I used to take my daughter to L.A. to a dolphin pool. My daughter leaned over and her blonde hair hit the water and as soon as it did, a dolphin came over and started playing with it.” It’s a memory she shared with Shawn Wiora, co-founder of MyndVR, a virtual reality company whose mission is to create a new genre of virtual reality—entertaining and therapeutic experiences designed for seniors.

The idea for MyndVR came to Shawn when he was coordinating a music therapy trial in West Texas. Patients were given their own iPod and personalized soundtracks. “The results were off the charts and that got me thinking about the implications for VR,” Shawn says. He presented the idea to his friend, Chris Brickler, an Emmy Award nominee—director and actor—and following a conversation which spanned just three beers, they quit their jobs and Chris relocated to Richardson from Palo Alto, California.

That was two years ago. Today, thanks to a donation of VR technology from Samsung, MyndVR has created a system which is wireless and operates completely hands free—making it easy to use and perfect for seniors.

Unlike some virtual reality systems which operate with wires and have joysticks or paddles, the MyndVR headset gets its power from a repurposed Samsung mobile phone and is operated purely by sight. Inside the headset is a small sensor which tracks the movement of the eyeball—users navigate through different experiences simply by looking at where they want to go. Once you put the headset on and have manually adjusted the focus to suit you, you can literally sit back, relax and let your eyes do all the work. You see a menu of options—from race car driving to being on stage with the symphony orchestra—and choose the experience just by looking at it. Poof! You’re there; scuba diving at the bottom of the ocean or even strolling around inside a Vincent van Gogh painting. You probably won’t want to, but to get back out you simply look at the exit sign.

While Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy has been around for decades, its application to treating seniors is brand new. So new, it’s still in the trial phase. In fact, the very first trial just took place at The Legacy Willow Bend, a continuing care retirement community in Plano.

“We started with 20 seniors, and we thought we’d probably lose about half because we have residents flying in hot air balloons, jumping out of airplanes…exploring caves in New Zealand. But we only had one drop out…and even had others who actually sought us out to take part,” Shawn says.

The results have been mind-blowing.

George Rothkopf’s vision improved. George, who suffers from macular degeneration and struggles to see anything beyond vague shapes and figures, actually reported being able to see clearly while using MyndVR.

David Grishman, who suffers from Parkinson’s and a severe case of vertigo, experienced complete relief from his symptoms. “When I first did virtual reality I was concerned it would make me more dizzy, but when I put the headset on I realized that my dizziness was gone,” David says. “I had seen 3D movies as a kid. Virtual reality is like 3D on steroids,” he adds with a grin.

A resident living with Alzheimer’s, Ada Lynn, became her old self again. When the trial began, she was having a difficult day, but as the virtual reality transported her to a jazz club to enjoy a live performance by Max Vontaine she began to smile. “She was on! She was dancing, she was immersive…she was happy,” her daughter says.

The most common result was regaining memory. The vivid, interactive and fully immersive experience brought old memories bubbling to the surface—like Edna who remembered visiting the dolphin pool in L.A.

Other residents of The Legacy Willow Bend found it fun and relaxing—a chance to go places they’d never been to, to live experiences they would otherwise not have the chance to. Christina Chan told me about her experience scuba diving. “I went scuba diving in Taiwan. It gives you a feeling like you are really there. You can look 360 degrees around. All the fish swim around you and you see the coral. It’s something I would never do in reality.”

This preliminary “observational” trial raised a lot of questions. Would everyone experience relief from vertigo? Why and how does virtual reality improve sight? Can relief from symptoms be made to last beyond the virtual reality experience?

The next stage is clinical trials. “We’ll be working with the UTD,” Shawn says. “The residents will have an MRI brain scan to measure the neuroplasticity of the brain. It’s scientifically proven that if you can improve neuroplasticity, you can improve cognitive wellness. There’s going to be a lot of future research that comes out of this first trial.”

In the future, Shawn foresees physicians actually prescribing virtual reality sessions—doses—to help alleviate symptoms and possibly even as preventative care. “By linking to a health care management system, care providers will be able to see what a patient has been experiencing and at the same time see if one particular type of experience is more beneficial to their condition than others,” he explains.

Brian Barnes, interim CEO and CFO/COO of The Legacy Senior Communities agrees: “Virtual reality has the potential to be a part of our programming as a form of clinical treatment or entertainment in the future. We look forward to continuing this collaboration to explore this new technology.”

Family members might even get in on the action, too. “A future phase would allow family members to participate. They could fly a plane together, for example,” Shawn says.

While these initial results have raised more questions than they’ve answered, there’s no doubt there’s a future in using virtual reality to improve the quality of life for seniors.