Robotic seal pups have passed a test set by Brighton University researchers as part of plans to use the smart toys to help dementia sufferers.
Brighton academics worked with dementia patients cared for by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to assess whether the furry toys were suitably hygienic.
The university said that although hard to clean, the seal – known as Paro – could pass infection control checks.
This means that the furry toys, which respond to touch and speech, are a step closer to being used routinely on dementia wards.
They have already been shown to bring comfort, the university said, and to enhance the wellbeing of people with dementia. But there were concerns about infection control.
The university said: “Hygiene and cleaning tests were carried out over nine months by Dr Kathy Martyn, principal lecturer in the university’s School of Health Sciences, on a 10-bed dementia ward run by Sussex Partnership.
“The results, just published, show that Paro was maintained within acceptable limits for NHS infection control.”
Lead researcher Penny Dodds, who recently moved from the university to the charity Dementia UK, said: “To our knowledge, this was the first testing of the infection prevention and control aspects in the world and we are delighted with the results.
“We have demonstrated that, under controlled conditions, Paro was safe within the hospital setting for an acute care dementia unit.
“It is hoped that this can allay concerns from those who have been hesitant about using Paro in the NHS.
“It is anticipated that Paro will receive ‘medical devices status’ in the UK shortly and the distributor is preparing Paro for the UK market.
“We could be seeing Paro on wards throughout the country in the not-too-distant future.
“The successful research means we can now offer our cleaning testing protocols for use.
“This work is ongoing and the next stage will be to see if a weekly clean can be reduced to 15 minutes.”
Paro was invented by Professor Takanori Shibata, from Japan.
The univer said: “Research has shown that the seal lessens stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression and improves mood and speech fluency.
“Paro has built-in sensors and its artificial intelligence allows it to ‘learn’ and respond to names patients give it.
“It also reacts to being stroked and spoken to. It wriggles, turns to the patient, opens its big eyes and lets out a cute, appealing squeak.”
Dr Dodds said: “There are similarities to pet therapy but Paro does not have the immediate association of a cat or dog and is easier to supervise.
“Unlike real pets, Paro always behaves, has rechargeable batteries, is always available – and Paro should last about 12 years.
“The most important aspect is the improvement Paro makes to a patient’s quality of life.”
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