With the second-generation Oculus Quest headset’s release, virtual reality is promising us new ways to connect while we socially isolate during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, as we immerse ourselves in our bubbles, emerging technology companies are exploring the possibilities of VR, big data, and artificial intelligence for more critical use cases.
These use cases include making more useful information available to mental health providers for cognitive assessment. For the aging community, where even „active“ seniors can feel isolated during the unfolding crisis, it’s helpful to take regularly cognitive assessments to understand the changes.
Shifting Focus Away From Gaming to Assessment
Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx made history earlier this year by becoming the first-and-only video game approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a medical treatment, ushering in a new era in the realm of VR.
Companies such as Virtuleap have been pursuing this avenue. They have drawn on research-backed science to create a set of brain training games to improve the aging population’s cognitive functions with the help of VR and artificial intelligence.
But, the cognitive improvement must be measured and compared to understand the effectiveness.
When studying performance measurement of existing cognitive games, the Lisbon-based health and education VR startup realized that mental health providers need more robust tools and data to help them monitor patients.
For instance, for patients who have mild cognitive impairments, patients with developmental disorders such as Autism, or patients who are on undergoing chemotherapy, taking continuous cognitive assessments can help mental health professionals to understand any changes that may occur.
Amir Bozorgzadeh, CEO and cofounder of Virtuleap, says, “Our vision is to bring together the best of the worlds of brain training apps, and neuropsychological assessment tools used in the medical field to monitor cognitive health.”
Virtuleap’s Enhance app offers a growing library of VR brain training games that test and train various cognitive skills, including memory, problem-solving, and information processing, as well as motor control and spatial orientation.
It pairs with a client dashboard and admin panel to provide various reporting and data tools that allow organizations to shape, modify, and analyze the collected information for the maximum cognitive benefit of users.
Bozorgzadeh says, “The amount of data that we are capturing is unprecedented. Just three minutes of playing our games generates 220,000 data points, which is a combination of granular player interaction data with rich sensory body data.”
With 12 clinical partnerships and six clinical study trials beginning in 2021 across the U.S. and Europe, Virtuleap hopes that more detailed assessments with additional cognitive information will enable mental health providers to understand the nuances of diagnosis for each patient.
For instance, someone in their middle age might exhibit patterns of decline in cognitive performance. By tracking the patterns through regular assessments in pre-defined intervals, mental health professionals can understand the patterns, triggers, and cognitive decline pace, especially when correlated to traditional methodologies like neuroimaging.
The Vision is Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s
Virtuleap started its journey to provide vital information for mental health providers that can be used to detect the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Typically, early detection of Alzheimer’s can allow the patient to take preventative measures to improve cognitive capacity and slow down the disease’s progression.
Bozorgzadeh says, „There are neuroimaging studies that have shown that with certain assessments, you can observe structural and functional changes in the brain. We are working to correlate our solution to traditional and standardized methodologies so that VR gaming data can serve as a digital health marker.“
Once early-onset Alzheimer’s is suspected, games can be recommended based on research to stimulate parts of the brain that may help the patient enjoy a high quality of life for a prolonged period.
But more importantly, family members can help monitor the cognitive decline in the patient to help them avoid potentially dangerous activities, such as driving.
In Schizophrenia, Virtuleap used a University of Cambridge study to create a game that would activate a specific part of the brain associated with the psychiatric disorder. The activation will allow for an increase in neural activity that can alleviate symptoms of Schizophrenia.
Whether these virtual reality apps are designed to treat Alzheimer’s or other mental illnesses, these types of diagnostic or therapeutic tools need FDA approval for use in the U.S. by mental health providers.
Further Research Needed in a Multitude of Areas
In the arena of VR healthcare, tools require extensive studies, but longitudinal studies may not be possible in today’s world where innovation is happening at such a fast pace.
Taking advantage of existing neuroscience research and global collaborations, universities in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. are racing to understand the effects of applying the technology in specific use cases, such as pain management, Autism, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Bozorgzadeh says, „The iteration of research, industry collaboration and application of research in technology and clinical testing can help researchers and technologists bridge the gaps in how they think VR technology should be used in healthcare, in which areas, and for what purposes. Over time, the technology will become more refined, more accepted, and the effects more controlled.“
The Future of VR
Like other technologies, the robustness of using virtual reality in conjunction with big data and AI can create powerful tools to bring about meaningful change in healthcare and education.
However, VR escapism has been a source of worry for proponents of the technology. Privacy issues related to biometric data is another concern.
Bozorgzadeh is mainly interested in VR education and healthcare because he believes they are the only two areas where VR has critical use cases.
Bozorgzadeh says, “I don’t believe in VR experiences that exceed 20 minutes. Our sessions are all designed to be 15 minutes maximum per session. Our games have features where a healthcare practitioner guides the sessions with a remote control feature to navigate through the login, games, and reporting, or even specify the length of time played. It is then followed by a playlist of games for assessment or experience.”
By giving healthcare practitioners the power to control the usage, therapeutic effects can be tracked, assessed, and managed.
With or without FDA approval, data from these games will adhere to the privacy guidelines and requirements set out by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 or HIPAA, a federal law that provides standards for the protection of sensitive patient health information.
By adhering to a consent-based usage system under current healthcare laws, VR games and assessment tools can potentially change how both patients and practitioners think about mental health management.
Virtual Reality – Image from Shutterstock