Eleven researchers from universities in London and Essex, UK, representing the complementary fields of communication sciences and disorders, health care economics, and computer science, have published findings from a controlled, randomized study that brought persons with aphasia (PWA) into virtual reality setting for practicing topic-oriented communicative interactions. The goals of these activities were to provide practice and experiences that promote wellbeing and communicative success. Data were gathered to document: (1) recruitment and retention rates, (2) outcomes regarding wellbeing, communication, social connectedness, and quality of life, and (3) costs of providing such services.

Qualifying PWA subjects were randomized to two groups of equal size, one comprising an immediate intervention group, and the other – a delayed intervention group. Participants were individuals with mild-moderate aphasias that did not preclude speech communication. They used the virtual reality platform EVA Park, in which subjects were represented onscreen by avatars.  The intervention schedule comprised fourteen sessions over a six-month period, led by community-based coordinators and volunteers. Each session focused on having subjects discuss a specified theme, e.g., ‘Aphasia’, where participants might be encouraged to share strategies they’ve used to ease communication. Outcome data were gathered through administration of the following assessment instruments:  Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale; Communicative Activities of Daily Living–2; Social Connectedness Scale-Revised; Western Aphasia Battery-Revised; and Stroke and Aphasia Quality of Life–39.

Post-intervention data analysis shows that the study’s recruitment target (n = 34) was met, and 29 of these subjects (85.3%) completed the intervention, with good treatment fidelity. Outcome analyses revealed no significant differences – either better or worse – on assessed items between administration times. This reflects a focus on strengthening social connections and promoting a sense of wellbeing, rather than effecting therapeutic improvement over time. Comprehensive tallies show costs to range from roughly $11K – $18K, depending on travel requirements, hardware loans, and number of volunteers. The researchers note that, with recent emphases on remote connectivity due to COVID-19, hardware costs are candidates for coming down over time.

For further reading: J. Marshall, N. Devane, R. Talbot et al., 2020, A randomised trial of social support group intervention for people with aphasia: A novel application of virtual reality. PLoS ONE, 15(9): e0239715. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239715

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