CIRCA - Innovative Memory Aid for Dementia by EPSRC
Jun 16, 2005, 18:07

Classic movies such as 'Casablanca' could bring back lost memories for dementia sufferers thanks to an innovative memory aid. Based on an interactive multimedia computer system and a clearer understanding of how dementia sufferers respond to social situations, the aid aims to stimulate more enjoyable, rewarding conversation between sufferers and those who care for them.

With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team of researchers in Scotland has developed CIRCA (Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid). CIRCA comprises a simple touch-screen with easy-to-follow instructions that require no IT competence.

When switched on, it displays a choice of three random categories (entertainment, local life etc). Selecting a category, the user is given a choice of 'music', 'photo' or 'video'. These in turn call up images, video or sound clips (e.g. of well-known movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart) from a database, acting as a memory trigger and conversation prompt. A 'stop and talk' button allows the system to be frozen at any point.

The research team has built a range of innovative features into the way the system is used. Because sufferer and carer sit side by side in front of the screen, encouraging the sense of a shared experience, and because the system relies on a touch screen, rather than a mouse or keyboard, the carer is not seen as being 'in control'. Furthermore, as the sufferer can be prompted to operate the system themselves, they feel less dependent on their carer. The result is a more positive, relaxed social experience than can be achieved using other memory-prompting reminiscence packages currently available.

During development, CIRCA was tested on 40 dementia sufferers in daycare, nursing home and family situations. The results were very encouraging, with many carers reporting that sufferers seemed like their 'old self' (see case studies below). CIRCA exploits the fact that, while dementia sufferers find it hard to recall recent events, longer-term memory is less affected by their condition.

CIRCA could become available on the market in 2-3 years. The research team is now looking at whether it could also be used for people with learning disabilities or head injuries. In addition, they have secured EPSRC funding to develop an interactive multimedia activity system that dementia sufferers can use on their own.

Dr Arlene Astell of the University of St Andrews School of Psychology is leading the research team. Dr Astell says: "Dementia sufferers' declining ability to hold normal conversations causes a lot of stress and frustration. Helping them access their memories will make living with dementia more bearable and less distressing for sufferers and their carers."

The 3-year project, 'A Multimedia Reminiscence Experience and Conversation Support for Elderly People with Memory Loss,' received EPSRC funding of 404,000. Alzheimer Scotland and Dundee City Council were partners in this initiative, which was supported under the EPSRC-funded EQUAL programme. EQUAL aims to encourage technological developments that improve quality of life for older adults.

The 3-year follow-up project, "Developing an Interactive Multimedia Activity System for Elderly People with Dementia", will run until 2007 and is receiving EPSRC funding of 457,000.

Researchers have found that it is better to avoid customising CIRCA to include items of close personal relevance to individual sufferers, who tended to feel distressed if they are unable to remember the names of people they recognised as close friends or family members.

In the UK, 5% of people over the age of 65 are affected by dementia, the most common form being Alzheimer's Disease.

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