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UT creating artificial intelligence to help slow dementia progression

Researchers are working on social robots to help aid those with dementia
Published: Jul. 6, 2021 at 11:29 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 7, 2021 at 10:18 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Xiaopeng Zhao says he’s been researching Alzheimer’s for over a decade. Now working as a professor with Mechanical Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Zhao is looking to develop a way for artificial intelligence in robots to assist dementia patients with everyday activities.

“Suppose a dementia patient tried to make a cup of coffee, they may forget what they’re doing or may forget what to do next,” said Zhao.

Zhao and graduate research assistant Fengpei Yuan have been programming the robots to help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s by keeping patients engaged.

“We really want to use our robots to engage people in social activities. I think the big challenge for people with dementia is they will gradually forget who they are and forget very important persons,” said Fengpei.

So far, the department has three robots that are nearly 4 feet tall. Their names are Tammie, Dolly and Elvis. They also have mini-robots they are working on.

Beyond helping with memory, the robots can help keep dementia patients entertained by putting on a show.

Zhao said additional studies need to be conducted with the robots before they are ready to go.

“We want to observe how a normal person conducts daily activities and how a dementia patient conducts daily activities so that we can compare the difference to create artificial intelligence,” said Zhao.

Alzheimer’s Tennessee is helping to fund the research at the UT College of Engineering. They are excited about the robots, and released a statement saying in part:

“We hope the robots will help individuals who are in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s maintain their independence by helping them with some of their daily living activities, such as dressing, preparing meals, and medication reminders. It’s hoped the robots could also enhance safety for those with Alzheimer’s disease by detecting if they have fallen or wandered, and reaching out for help. The robots could be a supportive addition for caregivers and the 10 percent of people with Alzheimer’s who live alone.”

Zhao said it will probably be another two years before the robot is ready to go.

To learn more about the robots or to find out how to participate in future studies, email Professor Zhao at xzhao9@utk.edu.

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