Ecological validity of virtual reality daily living activities screening for early dementia: longitudinal study

JMIR Serious Games. 2013 Aug 6;1(1):e1. doi: 10.2196/games.2778.


Background: Dementia is a multifaceted disorder that impairs cognitive functions, such as memory, language, and executive functions necessary to plan, organize, and prioritize tasks required for goal-directed behaviors. In most cases, individuals with dementia experience difficulties interacting with physical and social environments. The purpose of this study was to establish ecological validity and initial construct validity of a fire evacuation Virtual Reality Day-Out Task (VR-DOT) environment based on performance profiles as a screening tool for early dementia.

Objective: The objectives were (1) to examine the relationships among the performances of 3 groups of participants in the VR-DOT and traditional neuropsychological tests employed to assess executive functions, and (2) to compare the performance of participants with mild Alzheimer's-type dementia (AD) to those with amnestic single-domain mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and healthy controls in the VR-DOT and traditional neuropsychological tests used to assess executive functions. We hypothesized that the 2 cognitively impaired groups would have distinct performance profiles and show significantly impaired independent functioning in ADL compared to the healthy controls.

Methods: The study population included 3 groups: 72 healthy control elderly participants, 65 amnestic MCI participants, and 68 mild AD participants. A natural user interface framework based on a fire evacuation VR-DOT environment was used for assessing physical and cognitive abilities of seniors over 3 years. VR-DOT focuses on the subtle errors and patterns in performing everyday activities and has the advantage of not depending on a subjective rating of an individual person. We further assessed functional capacity by both neuropsychological tests (including measures of attention, memory, working memory, executive functions, language, and depression). We also evaluated performance in finger tapping, grip strength, stride length, gait speed, and chair stands separately and while performing VR-DOTs in order to correlate performance in these measures with VR-DOTs because performance while navigating a virtual environment is a valid and reliable indicator of cognitive decline in elderly persons.

Results: The mild AD group was more impaired than the amnestic MCI group, and both were more impaired than healthy controls. The novel VR-DOT functional index correlated strongly with standard cognitive and functional measurements, such as mini-mental state examination (MMSE; rho=0.26, P=.01) and Bristol Activities of Daily Living (ADL) scale scores (rho=0.32, P=.001).

Conclusions: Functional impairment is a defining characteristic of predementia and is partly dependent on the degree of cognitive impairment. The novel virtual reality measures of functional ability seem more sensitive to functional impairment than qualitative measures in predementia, thus accurately differentiating from healthy controls. We conclude that VR-DOT is an effective tool for discriminating predementia and mild AD from controls by detecting differences in terms of errors, omissions, and perseverations while measuring ADL functional ability.