Psychedelic room helps dementia patients

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Imagine for a moment what it would be like to suddenly be transported into a foreign world where almost nothing was comprehensible. The people you talked to and the language they spoke--everything an unending stream of incomprehensible, sometimes frightening, activity.

For many people living with conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, this is a daily reality. Now, psychologists are reaching back to the psychedelic and "mind expanding" 1960s and updating research on sensory deprivation with the hope of offering relief to people suffering from this type of dementia.

What looks like a modern art exhibit is in fact a room that enhances mental stimulation for people with dementia. Colored lights, a giant butterfly, and a tube filled with bubbles are just some of the objects that fill the space.

The treatment, which originated in the Netherlands and is called Snoezelen (pronounced snooze-lin), was originally used to help children suffering from autism. Previous research has shown that Snoezelen behavior therapy "reduces socially disturbed behavior, produces relaxation responses, improves mood enhances interpersonal interaction, facilitates verbal expression, improves memory recall, and enhances attention and concentration in dementia patients," said lead researcher Dr. Jason Staal of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

"Everything is done to maximize the wonderful joy of the experience. Remember these are people living in monochromatic, sensory deprived environments," Staal told Reuters Health, referring to bleak hospital rooms and the like. "The aim is to provide dementia patients with an experience that they can understand."

Dementia patients often lose the ability to read or understand words and the ability to complete tasks like preparing a meal or finding their shoes and putting them on. Music and color preference, on the other hand, tend to remain intact longer, explained Staal. For instance someone who likes the color blue will most likely have the same color preference into old age, even when dementia comes into play.

Patients are exposed to the room anywhere from three to five times per week depending on their degree of dementia. Two therapists accompany them, one who assists the patient in the room and another who other acts as an observer. At first the patient is closely monitored to see which stimuli have the most positive effect. The therapist is then able to focus and heighten the patient's experience in subsequent visits into the room.

"The current state of affairs in the day-to-day treatment for people with dementia is pretty miserable," said Staal. "Its great that the medical community is focused on a cure (for Alzheimer\'s) but all you have now is medicated people languishing all day in monochromatic rooms staring at the wall.


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