VR and AI can help dental patients with disabilities

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VR and AI prove useful aids in treating patients with mental disabilities

Virtual reality could be utilised across medicine to help provide a soothing environment during treatments which would normally be difficult for certain patient groups. (Image: Unai Huizi Photography/Shutterstock)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Every dental clinician in the world will, at some point, treat a patient with a form of mental disability, and according to recent research, technology is now available to make that treatment go more smoothly and to help the patient feel more comfortable. This study, significant in the context of Saudi Arabia where over a million individuals suffer from mental disabilities, aimed to address these patients’ inability to express dental treatment needs. The researchers explored the impact of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) interventions during dental treatments on anxiety and behavioural responses in patients with mental disabilities.

The study begins by highlighting the high prevalence of mental disorders globally and the specific challenges faced by individuals with mental disabilities in accessing dental care. The technological advancements in mental health treatment, especially through AI and VR, are underscored as potential solutions for managing anxiety and improving behaviour in dental settings. The authors sought to determine whether immersive VR experiences combined with AI interventions could reduce anxiety and improve behaviour in individuals with moderate to severe mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. It hypothesised that VR simulations would familiarise individuals with the dental environment, thereby making minor procedures easier for dental staff and patients.

The cross-sectional study was conducted between December 2022 and March 2023 among 90 Saudi female residents in a rehabilitation centre. Participants were selected based on specific inclusion and exclusion criteria, and data was collected on their demographic background, baseline anxiety levels, and behaviours. Two forms of intervention were employed in the care of these patients. The first utilised an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset to create a simulated natural environment to provide a soothing experience. The second intervention involved an AI-powered environment linked to a galvanic skin response (GSR) sensor, which adjusted the environment based on the patient’s anxiety levels by measuring emotional arousal.

The simulated environment created utilised the relaxing properties of nature such as imagery of a river and wetlands. Additionally, cartoon characters were included, and the environment was part of a customised design. The GSR monitored whether the patient reached an established threshold and adjusted the VR environment to compensate and provide a more soothing experience.

Each anxiety score was tailored to the patient, and the authors did not assign a baseline score. These individual scores were useful for evaluating before and after status for each patient as well as the efficacy of the programme during each phase of the treatment—pre-intervention, intervention and post-intervention. By additionally using the Frankl Behavior Rating Scale and the Venham Anxiety and Behavior Scale to assess behavioural changes, the clinicians were able to note a significant decrease in anxiety levels and improvement in behaviour when VR and AI interventions were employed. For example, GSR scores reduced significantly from pre-treatment to post-treatment. Additionally, there was a notable improvement in behaviour shown in the Frankl and Venham scores, and the study found a positive correlation between reduced anxiety and improved behaviour.

According to these results, it seems that VR-based distraction is an effective method for managing anxiety and behaviour during non-invasive dental treatments in individuals with mental disabilities. It suggests that VR and AI interventions have broader applicability in various clinical settings and calls for further research to explore their effectiveness in more complex medical and dental procedures.

The study, titled “Effect of virtual reality and artificial intelligence on anxiety and behaviour among individuals with mental disabilities in a dental setting”, was published on 27 October 2023 in the Journal of Disability Research.

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