VIDEO: Therapy seal pup could help dementia patients thanks to Sussex-based research

Robotic seals that respond to touch and speech are a step closer to being introduced onto dementia wards following new research by a university in Sussex.

Lead researcher Dr Penny Dodds, formerly from the University of Brighton, with Paro the robotic therapy seal pup
Lead researcher Dr Penny Dodds, formerly from the University of Brighton, with Paro the robotic therapy seal pup

The furry seal ‘PARO’, studied at the University of Brighton, has already shown to bring comfort and to enhance the wellbeing of people with dementia. But there were concerns about meeting the infection prevention control requirements.

PARO offers a challenge as it is considered a hard-to-clean device.

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Hygiene and cleaning tests were carried out over nine months by Dr Kathy Martyn, principal lecturer in the University’s School of Health Sciences, on a 10-bed dementia ward run by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Paro the robotic therapy seal pup

The results, just published, show that PARO was maintained within acceptable limits for NHS Infection Control.

Lead researcher Dr Penny Dodds, who recently moved from the University to the charity Dementia UK, said: “To our knowledge, this was the first testing of the infection prevention and control aspects in the world and we are delighted with the results.

“We have demonstrated that, under controlled conditions, PARO was safe within the hospital setting for an acute care dementia unit. It is hoped that this can allay concerns from those who have been hesitant about using PARO in the NHS.

“It is anticipated that PARO will receive Medical Devices Status in the UK shortly and the Distributor is preparing PARO for the UK market – we could be seeing PARO on wards throughout the country in the not-too-distant future.

“The successful research means we can now offer our cleaning testing protocols for use. This work is ongoing and the next stage will be to see if a weekly clean can be reduced to 15 minutes.”

PARO was invented by Professor Takanori Shibata from Japan and research has shown that the seal lessens stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression, and improves mood and speech fluency.

Modelled on a baby harp seal, it has built-in sensors and its artificial intelligence allows it to ‘learn’ and respond to names patients give it. It also reacts to being stroked and spoken to. It wriggles, turns to the patient, opens its big eyes and lets out a cute, appealing squeak.

Dr Dodds said: “There are similarities to pet therapy but PARO does not have the immediate association of a cat or dog and is easier to supervise.

“Unlike real pets, PARO always behaves, has rechargeable batteries, is always available – and PARO should last about 12 years.

“The most important aspect is the improvement PARO makes to a patient’s quality of life.”

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