Tech Firms Look to Robotic Pets, Music and VR to Help Treat Alzheimer’s

A robotic companion dog designed by Ageless Innovation. With pharmaceutical advances in Alzheimer's treatment stagnating, tech companies are looking for other solutions. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

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AS VEGAS — The drug industry’s foundering search for an Alzheimer’s cure is fueling a parallel quest by technology companies to help patients and family caregivers cope with the disease by using virtual reality software, robotics and novel communication tools.

Several companies engaged in the effort gathered here on Wednesday to deliver a unified message: Waiting for pharma to deliver a miracle is a recipe for financial Armageddon, as the cost of treating Alzheimer’s is expected to quadruple, to more than $1 trillion in the U.S. by 2030, if no breakthrough treatments reach the market.

The solution is not simply developing tools to manage patient symptoms, but to deliver better support to family caregivers who are collectively spending more than $500 billion annually to care for elderly relatives.

“If we do not support the role of family caregivers and value them in this process, there is nothing we can do to bend the cost curve beyond what we’re doing,” said Thomas Riley, chief executive of Seniorlink, which developed a digital communication platform to help coordinate care for Alzheimer’s patients.

Technology firms are also selling digital products to help patients: A company called Dthera Sciences has built a therapy that uses music and images to help patients recover memories. The product analyzes facial expressions to monitor the emotional impact on patients and discover the sounds and visuals that provide the greatest relief. Earlier this year, Dthera received breakthrough device designation from the Food and Drug Administration, which provides an expedited pathway for the product’s approval.

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Another firm, Ageless Innovation, has developed robotic cats and dogs that help to treat the depression and social isolation that so often afflicts people with Alzheimer’s. Ted Fischer, the company’s CEO, said Wednesday that research conducted by Pace University showed the products resulted in better patient outcomes across several measures, including a reduction in hospitalizations. “And it produces joy and meaningful connections for these patients,” Fischer said.

The pharmaceutical industry has racked up a long list of failures in recent years, with many drug candidates following a similar narrative. A promising treatment in early-stage research turns out to be a flop in late-stage trials, putting investors, patients, and caregivers on a roller coaster that always ends in disappointment and a return to the drawing board.

Fischer and other technology executives gathered here said their products are neither panaceas nor substitutes for a hoped-for pharmaceutical breakthrough that could reverse or prevent the symptoms of the disease. But they also urged public and private funders to step up investments in technology solutions that, in the short term, represent the best option for patients and families.

Carrie Shaw, chief executive of Embodied Labs, said the fear and stigma of Alzheimer’s has undermined the development of tools to help families, clinicians, and payers confront the disease in a meaningful way. “We’re afraid of it, so we’re not addressing it,” she said, adding that more investment is needed to diagnose the onset of the disease at an earlier stage, to ensure more effective treatment.

Her company developed a virtual reality program to educate caregivers about the disease and help them understand its impact on their relatives. The product immerses users in various scenarios Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers commonly face — from the loss of cognitive function, to changes in family relationships, to caregiver burnout.

“We not only go inside their lives, but inside their bodies, so they actually know what it’s like to have this disease,” Shaw said.

Effective training and education for caregivers is especially important as the population ages, dramatically increasing the need for Alzheimer’s treatment as government investment in nursing home beds continues to decline.

Riley, the CEO of Seniorlink, said that means care will be increasingly delivered in home settings, where technology can help facilitate access to timely information and care. Seniorlink’s communication platform, called Vela, is a digital messaging service that can be used by all the family members, clinicians, and service providers involved in a patient’s care. Similar to workplace platforms like Slack, it lets the parties communicate in real time to address emergent problems and share information about changes in a patient’s condition and level of need.

Riley said the company is using analytics to help recognize patterns in patients’ symptoms, in an effort to flag optimal interventions for caregivers. He cautioned, however, that such technology should be used only to augment human care — not replace it.

“Money always rushes to technology,” he said. “But what technology gives you is data that humans still have to act on. And to act on it, they have to be able to trust it.”

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This story was originally published by STAT, an online publication of Boston Globe Media that covers health, medicine, and scientific discovery.

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