Tablet computers are safe and potentially effective in managing agitation among people with dementia, according to the results of a small pilot study in press by the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

“Our preliminary results are a first step in developing much-needed empirical data for clinicians and caregivers on how to use technology such as tablets as tools to enhance care and also for app developers working to serve the technologic needs of this population,” said Ipsit Vahia, M.D., lead author of the study and medical director of geriatric psychiatry outpatient services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA.

The research builds on previous studies demonstrating that art, music and similar therapies can effectively reduce symptoms of dementia without medication. By using tablet devices to employ these therapies, however, those with dementia and their caregivers also benefit from a computer’s flexibility, the authors said.

“The biggest advantage is versatility,” Vahia said. “We know that art therapy can work, music therapy can work. The tablet, however, gives you the option of switching from one app to another easily, modifying the therapy seamlessly to suit the individual. You don’t need to invest in new equipment or infrastructure.”

Researchers loaded a menu of 70 apps onto the tablets for the study. The apps were freely available on iTunes and varied greatly in their cognitive complexity — from an app that displayed photos of puppies to one that featured Sudoku puzzles.

The tablets were provided to 36 patients at a geriatric psychiatry inpatient unit when they were agitated. Researchers documented the frequency and duration of tablet use as well as app use history. They also rated the extent to which agitation improved after the tablets were used.

The researchers found that tablet use was safe for every patient, regardless of the severity of the dementia, and that with proper supervision and training, the engagement rate with the devices was almost 100%. The tablets, they said, also were very effective in reducing symptoms of agitation, particularly among individuals who had milder forms of dementia.

Based on the outcomes, Vahia’s clinical team is expanding the use of the tablets at the hospital so that they can develop more robust data.