Alzheimer's Research

Neuropsychology Team Develops Virtual-Reality-Based Memory Tests

Publication Date: 01/30/2020

A memory assessment is a vital tool in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment. But conventional memory tests, typically given via paper and pencil, provide limited insight into a person’s capacity to perform everyday tasks such as preparing a meal or driving a vehicle.

The University of Texas at Tyler Memory Assessment and Research Center (MARC) is working to develop virtual-reality-based cognitive assessments to provide a clearer picture of how well an individual is functioning in life.

The MARC was awarded a three-year grant for nearly $300,000 from the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program to conduct the research with an emphasis on veterans. The project is led by Dr. Michael Barnett, MARC director and assistant professor of psychology, and his team of graduate neuropsychology students.

“Pencil-and-paper type neuropsychological assessments in which a person is asked to recall a series of words or numbers are good for predictive purposes, but they only allow us to make assumptions as to the individual’s actual capacity to function,’’ Barnett said, noting that families question whether their loved one can continue living independently.

Participants in the study are placed in virtual environments simulating everyday situations.

“We’ll ask the participant to, for example, cook in a virtual kitchen or shop in a virtual grocery store. Can they remember the grocery items they planned to purchase? Can they follow a shopping budget? Those are the types of questions these simulations are designed to answer,’’ Barnett said.

The grant-funded studies began last year and continue through 2022. So far, the team has tested about 100 participants using the virtual reality technology and is gathering data to for research papers and conference presentations.

The research project is one of several conducted at the center, which works in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County.

SERVING EAST TEXAS

Located next to the Alzheimer’s Alliance, a few miles from campus, the MARC also offers free services to the community, including screenings and evaluations for suspected or existing cognitive impairment and therapeutic services for caregivers and families.

“Our mission is threefold,’’ Barnett said. “We serve the community with evaluations and, in turn, we are able gather research data to advance the practice of neuropsychology while also providing training opportunities for students.’’

The center, supported primarily by contributions, is staffed by about 25 students from the neuropsychology track of UT Tyler’s Master of Science in clinical psychology program. Students are involved in all aspects of the center, from recruiting research study participants and conducting research to performing evaluations, assessments and consultations under Barnett’s supervision.

TRAINING FUTURE NEUROPSYCHOLOGISTS

Student researcher Jessica Helphrey, who is pursuing a career as a neuropsychology professor and researcher, has published papers in peer reviewed journals and presented at neuropsychology conferences across the nation. But seeing patients has been the most rewarding part of her work at the MARC.

“We’ve seen all levels of cognitive impairment, as well as people who have a family history of Alzheimer’s or dementia and are curious about where they stand and what their future might be,’’ said the second-year grad student from Tampa, Florida. “To be able to provide free assessments and evaluations to those who cannot afford them and give them a diagnosis and direction for their future has been very fulfilling.’’

Jennifer Sawyer of Houston completed her master’s in December and plans to pursue her doctorate in neuropsychology. However, she will remain in Tyler through the spring to continue her research in virtual-reality-based testing. She, too, has had her research selected for presentation at national conferences.

“My goal is to become a neuropsychologist and work with older adults who have memory problems,’’ she said. “I want to research different forms of neurocognitive disorders and come up with new forms of testing, so to be able to participate in this type of cutting-edge research at the MARC has been a great opportunity.’’

Learn more about the UT Tyler Memory Assessment and Research Center.

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