Could virtual reality therapy be used to improve cognition and prevent worsening mentation? One of the teams running as semi-finalists in the Helsinki Challenge is aiming to do just that. The Helsinki Challenge, a scientific-based competition out of Finland, has brought together teams of researchers with the goal of addressing the United Nation’s sustainable development milestones. Team Senior Cognitive Booster is one of 20 teams, from an initial pool of 110, currently in the running in this Challenge.

Senior Cognitive Booster is using mobile virtual reality technology, which appears to be the Samsung Gear VR device in promotional videos, combined with physical activity to promote both physical and mental health. To do so, they hope to place users into immersive environments that feature cognitive challenges and also incorporate physical activity. Their initial demo video shows the use of a virtual rowboat environment, complete with use of real rowing-gestures to move the virtual boat down a river. It’s unclear how the rowing motion of the user’s hands is translated into movement in the virtual world as current Gear VR devices don’t incorporate full body motion tracking at this time.

The team developing this virtual reality app are neurology researchers with experience in neuroimaging. They cite research on neuroplasticity as a key ingredient in their project, and hope to show brain activity changes with fMRI in their research subjects, which is an interesting endpoint and one we haven’t seen in other similar work.

Apps to improve cognition have struggled, particularly amidst regulatory issues in the United States. While these apps may show users improving in their abilities within the app, actually translating such improvements into clinically meaningful change, backed by research, has been a challenge. One of the most famous “brain-training” type of apps, Lumosity, was hammered with a $50 million fine by the FTC recently related to claims over its use and marketing. While VR may offer a much more immersive, engaging environment for such brain games, it remains to be seen if it will offer a truly useful clinical tool for cognition.

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