People with dementia test-drive virtual reality rehabilitation system used by injured soldiers to help their condition

Project also being used to support stroke victims and people recovering from brain injuries

First developed to rehabilitate wounded Israeli soldiers, the virtual reality CAREN machine has also helped hundreds of injured Chinese earthquake victims to take their first steps to recovery.

Now those with dementia in northern England have begun test-driving the same revolutionary rehabilitation system to help with their condition – throwing them into a futuristic world where they can fight sharks, drive high-speed cars and try downhill skiing.

A specialist brain charity in Salford has installed the contraption – which is called Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment. The CAREN device, the first of its kind to be used by the public in the UK, puts patients at the helm of interactive games and activities and exposes them to ski slopes and shark-infested waters without any danger.

Around 30 people with mild to moderate forms of dementia are already taking part in a 12-month pilot rehabilitation programme called Virtual Adventures with £23,000 funding from doctors in the city who commission health services. The charity, BASIC, says the machine is already helping patients both physically and mentally. The aim is to test the long-term benefits. It is also being used to support stroke victims and people recovering from brain injuries.

Joy Watson, 56, a Salford mum who is living with Alzheimer’s after being diagnosed in June 2013, was among the first to test out the machine. Along with her husband, Tony, she has become a leading campaigner in fighting for better support for people with the condition. She said: “It was disorientating at first because my spatial awareness wasn’t that good, but it has really improved. I went skiing and walked through a forest. You are surrounded by a giant screen and it’s as if you are really there. It’s exciting because it’s so real. It’s exciting that people living with dementia in Salford can be part of this new initiative that could change the lives of so many.”

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Joy Watson, who is living with dementia, and her husband Tony (Jon Super)

More than 29,500 people are estimated to be living with dementia in Greater Manchester, the region that includes Salford. Many of them are undiagnosed.

More than 3,000 people were given a devastating dementia diagnosis by doctors in the region last year as they launched a major bid to find and diagnose patients.

The rate of diagnosis in Salford, where more than 700 people develop dementia each year, stands at 76.3 per cent. The average diagnosis rate for England is just 48pc. Campaigners say early diagnosis is vital to ensuring that patients can get the right help and support.

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In November, it was announced that Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, the Alzheimer’s Society, Salford Clinical Commissioning Group and Greater Manchester’s health and social care devolution team would join forces to create Dementia United – a partnership aimed at making the region more dementia friendly.

It will bring together charities, emergency services and a range of other organisations to establish joined up dementia services across the region. It will also pilot the use of case workers to support people with dementia and their families.

Sylvia Moss, neuro-physiotherapist at BASIC, a charity that provides physical, cognitive and emotional support for people with brain and spinal injuries, said the CAREN equipment being piloted in Salford is used by US and Israeli forces to treat wounded soldiers. She said: “This is the first machine of its type in a community setting in Britain and its already proving extremely useful in helping patients with their balance, walking and cognition. 

“It is helping them with their day-to-day activities by putting them at the helm of a virtual world where they can try skiing, football, driving through traffic and sailing in waters surrounded by sharks. It’s a fun, stimulating and completely safe environment. Those taking part in the pilot are already seeing the benefits.”

Dr Tom Tasker, clinical lead for mental health at NHS Salford Clinical Commissioning Group, which provided the funding for the Virtual Adventures pilot scheme, said: “Over the next 12 months, we’ll be looking at how this revolutionary technology can help both the physical and mental wellbeing of people living with dementia.

“Virtual adventures is not only ground-breaking in what it can deliver, but more importantly, especially for those involved in the project, it enables them to exercise and receive rehabilitation in a totally safe and secure environment.”

Blueprints: Moving and mental health

Monitoring people’s movements could offer medics new ways to diagnose and treat mental health conditions in the future, according to a new study.

People who display similar behavioural characteristics tend to move their bodies the same way, the research found.

Each person has an individual motor signature, a blueprint of differences in the way they move compared to someone else, such as speed or weight of movement, the study, published in the journal Interface, suggested. It was carried out by researchers at the universities of Exeter and Bristol and institutions in France and Italy.

“What we demonstrate is that people typically want to react and interact with people who are similar to themselves,” said Professor Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova, from the University of Exeter. 

She added: “But what our study also shows is that movement gives an indication of a person’s behavioural characteristics. This could be used to help diagnose patients with certain conditions by studying how they move and react to others.”

The findings also suggest that people with comparable movement blueprints will find it easier to co-ordinate with each other during interpersonal interactions.

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