Top Dog: Can a Robot Ease Loneliness as Well as a Furry Friend?

Released: 4/26/2006 10:05 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Saint Louis University Medical Center
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Newswise — Saint Louis University geriatricians are researching what helps nursing home residents feel less lonely " a robotic dog or a real pooch.

"Some people believe nursing home residents can get attached to this mechanic animal, and wouldn't it be wonderful not to have the fuss and muss of a living dog," says William A. Banks, M.D., professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University.

Banks and his wife Marian Banks, who is a nurse and adjunct instructor in geriatrics at Saint Louis University, are comparing how residents interact with both the robotic dog and their real dog, Sparky.

Marian Banks is visiting nursing homes around the St. Louis area for animal-assisted therapy sessions with Sparky. The same nursing home residents who see Sparky also spend time with the Japanese robotic pet, Aibo.

"You could say that Saint Louis University is pioneering the use of mechanical dogs in nursing homes," says John Morley, M.D., director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and the medical director of NHC Healthcare Maryland Heights, a study site.

"This little robotic dog could turn out to be a great companion for elderly people who have difficulty taking a real dog for walks or who can't have a pet where they live."

The nursing home residents will spend weekly sessions for two months interacting with each critter. Then they will be ranked on scales that measure their attachment and loneliness.

"We let the person interact with the dog " be it mechanical or furry," Banks says.

Sparky is a medium-sized, mixed-breed, gentle dog that the Banks' found in their neighborhood four years ago.

The Aibo mechanical dog is eight- to nine-inches tall, has a hard-shell body and makes noises and lights up in response to human interactions. It had been manufactured by Sony, which discontinued production in March. Aibo returns to its "cradle" to recharge its battery when it runs out of juice.

"It's rather endearing," says Banks, who also is a staff physician at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis.

"There's evidence that some people really get attached to this guy. It's like being with a cartoon that spontaneously responds to what you do. The more you work with him, the more responsive he gets."

Whether nursing home residents will respond to Aibo as warmly as they interact with Sparky remains to be seen. Previously research involving Sparky showed that nursing home residents felt less lonely after spending time alone with the dog than they did when they spent time with Sparky and other people.

"It's similar to the folk tale about John Henry, the person who competed against a steam drill, to see whether a living being or machine did a better job in building a railroad," Banks says.

"It should take about nine months to know whether nursing home residents prefer the company of a mechanical dog to the real thing. But even if they like Sparky better, if we find that there's some benefit to spending time with Aibo, it's going to be pretty amazing."

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first M.D. degree west of the Mississippi River. Saint Louis University School of Medicine is a pioneer in geriatric medicine, organ transplantation, chronic disease prevention, cardiovascular disease, neurosciences and vaccine research, among others. The School of Medicine trains physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health services on a local, national and international level.


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