Using animal robots in the care of people with dementia has a modest but significant benefit, a new Griffith University study has revealed.

Published this week in The Journal of American Medical Directors Association (JAMDA), the study follows on previous research by Professor Wendy Moyle and her team at Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland, which showed that the introduction of a robotic seal called “Paro” could bring positive benefits for people with dementia, including reduced anxiety and a decreased tendency to wander.

Invented by Japanese engineers and commercially used in several countries, the Paro — which costs around $8,500 – can respond to touch, temperature and voice and can even learn its name. Paro is used as robotic pet therapy in situations in particular where live animals are no longer possible.

This latest study supported by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding, is the largest study that has ever been conducted using social robots. The researchers recruited 415 residents, aged 60 plus and with a diagnosis of dementia, from 28 long-term care facilities in South-East Queensland.

The recruits were randomly given 10-weeks of either individual, non-facilitated 15-minute sessions, three times a week with Paro, or a plush toy (Paro with robotic features disabled), or continued routine facility care as usual.

Researchers used video recordings of residents’ during and after the 10-week intervention period to assess changes in residents’ levels of engagement with the Paro or plush toy, mood states (i.e emotions) and agitation.

“We found that residents in the Paro group were significantly more verbally and visually engaged with the Paro than those in the plush toy group, suggesting that the robotics were beneficial,” says Professor Moyle.

“Clinically, the differences between the two groups were small for verbal engagement (talking to the robot/plush toy), but more pronounced than visual engagement (looking at Paro or plush toy) suggesting that residents were stimulated by verbal responses from Paro.

“Both the Paro and plush toy groups were more effective than usual routine care, producing greater reductions in residents’ display of neutral affect (i.e displays of no facial emotion). Paro, however, was specifically more effective than usual routine care in improving residents’ expression of pleasure.”

Paro demonstrated some effectiveness in reducing agitated behaviour when compared to usual care, although the size of this difference was small, says Professor Moyle.

“Our analyses also suggested that there was an initial positive, novelty response to Paro and plush toy from residents. This short-term effect was strongest for visual engagement with the Paro and plush toy, and for pleasure.”

Professor Moyle says the study findings support the effectiveness of Paro, but also suggest that where there are limited resources, a soft toy animal may be used effectively with a person with dementia.

She stresses that “a robotic animal such as Paro should not be used to replace staff time, but rather be used during those inevitable periods when staff are otherwise preoccupied or when the individual may benefit from comfort and stimulation.

“Staff need to fully understand how to use the Paro and its technology before it can be effectively used with people with dementia.”

Professor Moyle states that the study has added important understandings to the use of robotic animals with people with dementia in long-term care, and that further research is now needed that looks to identify the characteristics of people who will benefit from the Paro robot and plush toy.

“Knowing what works best, who with, and in what situations, will add to our understanding further of how Paro can be used in real clinical settings,” concludes Professor Moyle.