Virtual Reality and Avatars for Cognitive Testing and Rehabilitation

By | October 4, 2011

The Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco and related HealthCamp SFBay “unconference” were both forward-looking meetings on where health care will be heading in the next several years. One of the themes I want to pull out and examine in more detail is the use of virtual reality (VR) and avatars for a wide range of cognitive rehabilitation, testing, and training options.

Consider the following examples:

    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Therapy & Mitigation

  • Returning military service members with PTSD symptoms can be gradually desensitized and normalized to the triggers that cause flashbacks and many other disruptive PTSD symptoms through VR “exposure therapy”. The Veterans Administration and DoD are experimenting with very realistic VR systems that put a soldier back into a Humvee travelling down a street in Iraq, complete with local sensory elements like Arabic conversations, hot dry wind, cooking smells, etc. In fact, these VR experiments have been so accurate that the “reality” part of VR has to be dialed back a bit so that patients don’t become immediately overwhelmed.
  • Addiction Rehabilitation

  • Addiction therapy and recovery is a potential application for VR systems. Dr. Ivana Steigman at Thrive Research is doing some interesting work with VR – think about helping a recovering alcoholic manage triggers with VR therapy that puts the patient in a comfortable bar, complete with music, cigarettes, the smell & sight of his favorite drink , etc. While it would be unethical for a therapist to physically take an addict into a triggering environment, the use of VR has some potential therapeutic benefits.
  • Medical Avatars

  • Adam Odessky from Orange Labs gave a great example at Health 2.0 of how a medical assistant avatar can handle brief, routine tasks for chronic conditions or rehabilitation tasks. The avatar was believable and reassuring, and I can see how these applications could spread rather quickly for a variety of health care needs.

Another emerging area VR and avatars is cognitive testing and training for employees of all stripes. In the health care industry, think about VR cognitive training for high activity/high stress environments like urban hospital ERs — making mistakes in VR training is a much better than in the actual ER environment.

A second example is training for health workers and family caretakers that care for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s/dementia patients. Imagine being able to confront situations in VR training, where Alzheimer’s patient avatars act out. This would be great training for home caretakers especially, as they may not have access to group support.

Stay tuned for more developments in virtual reality cognitive testing and medical avatars.