Robots providing comfort for patients with dementia in Brisbane

A baby harp seal that responds, cuddles and follows commands and a robot the height and size of a human are on the cutting edge of health care for people with dementia and they are being rigorously tested in a laboratory in Brisbane.  

Professor Wendy Moyle

Working out of one of the best social robotics laboratories in the world at Brisbane’s Griffith University, Professor Wendy Moyle said her world-leading research into robotics was focused on making life easier for people with dementia.

An interest in mental health and watching her two grandfathers, father and sister-in-law battle dementia spurred Professor Moyle, who is Program Director at Griffith University’s Menzies Health Institute QLD, to dedicate her career to finding better ways to care for people with the syndrome. 

“Most of my work is involved in improving the quality of life for people with dementia and also their family carers,” Professor Moyle said. 

Often when people are in the mid to late stages of dementia, which is a condition that includes Alzheimer’s disease, they can lose the ability to talk or communicate their needs and can become very agitated, or conversely, they can become apathetic and depressed. 

“We have looked at the use of robotics as a way to comfort people, to engage them back into society or encourage their communication; to connect them with family members if they are in a nursing home and look at ways to reduce those behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia that may be related to unmet needs,” Professor Moyle said. 

Professor Wendy Moyle

Professor Moyle and her team which includes neuropsychologists, pharmacists, psychiatrists, IT specialists and engineers, are weeks away from publishing the results of the world’s most sophisticated clinical trial into the use of robots, specifically, the use of PARO, a robot that looks and acts like a baby harp seal and is used in place of a live animal. 

The PARO robot is being trialled with 415 people with dementia across 28 nursing homes in South East Queensland. Developed in Japan, PARO is soft, cuddly and can interact and communicate with people by encouraging them to show it love and affection. 

Professor Moyle’s research found that PARO was able to give people with dementia greater levels of comfort, pleasure, stimulation and joy than either a non-robotic fluffy toy or usual patient care. PARO was also found to ease a number of the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.The team aims to embark on the next phase of researching the PARO and look at the specifics around how it should be used, for example when people should have access to it and how long people should use it.

Professor Wendy Moyle

Professor Moyle has also conducted a successful pilot clinical trial of a telepresence robot that is used to connect people with dementia with healthcare professionals, families and friends. The fully mobile robot is the size and height of a human being. It can be controlled by families and friends from a remote location - so it feels like they are in the same room as their family member or friend with dementia. The Brisbane research team aims to develop ways to give the robot the ability to take temperatures and blood pressure and do other health assessments to help healthcare providers predict patterns of behaviour of people with dementia. 

Professor Moyle said she was also working with two Japanese companies to develop and test a new robotic device that could be personalised to know details about someone’s life, like their former careers and their likes and dislikes, to encourage more interaction and connection. Professor Moyle said her Brisbane research team was internationally recognised because of the rigorous processes it used to evaluate existing technologies and develop new technologies with the end user in mind.

As well as the world-class researchers at Brisbane’s Griffith University, Professor Moyle said the encouragement and support of the university administration was what kept her in Brisbane.

“Because of the support of the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, I was enabled to build one of the best social robotics labs in the world,” she said.

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