Families of dementia patients see positive effect of social robot seal

(Reuters Health) - Paro, a robotic baby harp seal, seems to improve dementia patients’ mood and increase opportunities for communication with family members, according to a small study.

In a head to head comparison, family members of dementia patients said the robotic plush toy sparked more social interaction and engagement than a nonrobotic look-alike stuffed animal, the study authors report in The Gerontologist.

“On the whole, families loved the Paro and saw the positive way their family members interacted with it,” said lead author Wendy Moyle of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia.

As the number of people with dementia increases in aging populations across the world, researchers have looked for ways that families can interact with their loved ones.

Takanori Shibata of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tokyo created Paro to behave like a pet. With 12 sensors in its fake fur and whiskers, it responds to petting and moves its tail and paws. He lent five of the devices to the study authors for their tests but was not otherwise involved in their research.

“Families did not see the robot’s use as demeaning and enjoyed seeing their family member engage with and talk to the robot as though it was a pet,” Moyle told Reuters Health by email.

As part of a larger randomized controlled trial involving 415 dementia patients in 28 Australian long-term care facilities, Moyle and colleagues compared Paro with a look-alike model that had the artificial intelligence and movement functions turned off.

The dementia patients received 15-minute sessions three afternoons per week with the robot or plush toy for 10 weeks. The researchers then conducted interviews with 20 family members - 10 whose relative interacted with Paro and 10 who had the static plush toy.

Family members’ feedback indicated that an active Paro affected the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia by encouraging verbal and visual engagement with the robot, improving the patients’ expressions of pleasure and reducing their agitation in general.

At the same time, both nursing home staff and families were concerned about the cost of Paro, which in Australia runs about A$8,500 and $6,400 in the U.S.

“We conducted a cost-effective analysis - soon to be published - and found there are ongoing costs of maintenance that also need to be taken into account,” Moyle said.

Overall, Paro had a positive effect on patients with early to mid-stage dementia, but the research team wouldn’t recommend the toy for those with severe dementia. Moyle and colleagues plan to further study the “dose,” or how long Paro should be used during each session, that has the optimal effect.

“Non-pharmacological interventions, solutions and treatment, such as robotic seals, dog visits, and taking nursing home residents into nature, need much more focus,” said Dr. Karen Thodberg of Aarhus University in Denmark, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Thodberg has compared the responses of nursing home residents to Paro, a toy cat and a real dog. She found that visiting dogs had better long-term effects than either plush toys or robotic toys, and said she’d like to better understand whether interaction, novelty or spontaneity are the most important factors in these “visits.”

Using live animals could help with the cost as well, Thodberg noted. In Denmark, the non-profit organization TrygFonden recruits private dog owners for nursing home visits. In turn, nursing homes can read about the dogs online and book visits for individual residents or groups.

“We need to know more about how we can improve the lives of this growing population group,” Thodberg told Reuters Health by email. “The research in this field is still young.”

SOURCE: The Gerontologist, online November 19, 2017.