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How can a baby robot seal be a medical device?


What Animal-assisted Therapy and Robots Have in Common
Interaction with Paro robots can be as effective as live-animal therapies for patients with cognitive disorders.
Interaction with Paro robots can be as effective as live-animal therapies for patients with cognitive disorders.
© Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Corbis

In studies of human-robot interaction, Paro has been found to have a calming, anxiety-reducing effect on distressed elderly patients as well as a positive effect on social stimulation and communication. This is similar to how animal-assisted therapy has been associated with a reduction in pain (both physical and emotional) and improved healing (both body and mind). And that's no surprise; developed in 2003 by Japanese engineer Takanori Shibata at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Paro's based on the successes of using animals in therapeutic ways to help patients overcome both physical and mental health problems.

Animal-assisted therapy has been found to significantly improve both the mental and physical well-being of not only patients, but also their family members and caregivers. Petting and interacting with animals, it turns out, is more than just fun: It makes us feel good both emotionally and physically (it releases endorphins in our bodies, which naturally help lessen our pain), it lowers our stress levels (and our blood pressure) and it makes us feel a little less lonely. And this interaction also helps boost communication among patients and caregivers.

Paro is just as powerful as a live animal -- minus the vet bills and the pooper scooper. Interacting with the robot seal improves brain function in elderly patients experiencing declines in mental faculties and mood associated with mid to late stages of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease as well as other cognitive problems. Over time, interaction with Paro may not only prevent cognitive disorders from worsening, but also from developing. And just as studies have found to be true with live therapy animals, Paro has also proven to significantly lower both blood pressure and heart rate in elderly patients living in nursing homes -- both of which significantly increased after interactions with the therapeutic plush robot ended [source: Robinson].