Treating Dementia With Virtual Reality

Meet the 23-year-old Oxford whiz that invented her own dementia treatment using VR.

Treating Dementia With Virtual Reality

Collegiate hobbies tend toward the banal: Culture clubs, sporting teams, the like.

How about developing your own VR app that’s proven to slow the progress of dementia, and help stroke patients overcome the already arduous path of rehabilitation?

For Oxford alum Jennifer Zhang, that’s exactly what she did. Oh, and she was on the college rowing team too: It was a good complement to her Computer Science major because, she demurs, it helped combat her “lazy nature”.

In April, Zhang’s VR programme, Dancing Mind was selected by Sequoia India as one of 17 Southeast Asian startups for its new Surge accelerator programme, bringing with it a S$1.5million investment.

Jennifer Zhang and a patient using Dancing Mind

It’s a VR programme that houses a suite of over 50 different applications and games, all categorised into three sections, namely, physiotherapy, cognitive development, and meditation. Patients are placed into modules depending on their needs: Someone who misses cooking in his long-demolished childhood home can be placed into a similar-looking kitchen simulation, while another who has been experiencing insomnia can choose a guided meditation held on a beach. 

Therapists are able to watch and track a patient’s progress in real time, but more importantly, it gives them the ability to oversee multiple patients at the same time. In resource-starved Singapore, where just 1,400 therapists are meant to serve over 200,000 patients who require daily therapy, that’s a godsend. 

And — above all — it works. Zhang keeps videos of each trial and session that she personally attends in her phone. In one, Zhang shows us a video of a Singaporean stroke patient who hadn’t moved his right arm in 6 months. The therapist places him in Dancing Mind’s underwater swimming module: Its foreign to him at first, but the instructions — spoken in his native dialect — guide and encourage him. Slowly, the man catches on: he begins to mime the act of swimming, and for the first time in half a year, manages to move his right arm. 

It’s an emotional moment, one of the many success stories that Zhang has personally witnessed. 

Zhang, who spent most of her youth volunteering with dementia patients, and whose own grandmother was afflicted with severe dementia, came up with Dancing Mind as an undergraduate.

“In university, I learned that VR had so many different uses, but my heart always came back to dementia patients,” she says. “But I had seen the situations that these patients were in, and I felt morally obligated to do something about it.”

Zhang graduated with First Class honours from Oxford in the spring of 2018. By June, she had begun building a company around her new application. Today, Dancing Mind is available in 7 institutions and homes in Singapore, including Tan Tock Seng Hospital, serving thousands of patients in need of therapy. She just turned 23 in May, but already, Zhang leads a dream-team of 20 full-time staff from around the world, and has given talks at events such as Innovfest Unbound.

But the detractors won’t go away. Zhang doesn’t think they ever will, mostly because — she opines matter-of-factly — she is a woman.

“Its easy to feel like the odd one out,” says Zhang, who was the only woman in her Computer Science major at Oxford, and one of the few foreign students in the faculty.

“But knowing that what I’m doing is making people’s lives easier and happier — that gives me confidence and the motivation to go on.”

Zhang is working toward getting Dancing Mind available outside of hospitals and nursing homes within the next five years — its availability at pharmacies will enable people with mild dementia to confront the problem earlier, allowing them to arrest its progression. It will help alleviate the burden on the healthcare system and caregivers, she says, but more importantly, provide patients with a new, helpful form of therapy. 

While some might see her young age as a drawback, Zhang clearly doesn’t think that way. To say that the chirpy China-born Singaporean works hard is an understatement, but to her, she’s on a mission far too important to be daunted by a few paltry critics. 

“I don’t see myself as a 23-year-old any more. I see myself as my responsibilities, especially given what I’m doing,” she says.

But whenever doubt looms in her mind, Zhang thinks back to her late grandmother. 

By the time Zhang was born, her grandmother’s dementia had progressed to the point where she could barely recognise her own children. But somehow, she registered the fact that she had a granddaughter — Jennifer.

“We want to become the most trusted weapon against what is one of the deadliest diseases in the world,” she says. “Because I want to help give these patients, and their caregivers, these precious moments of happiness.”

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