The researchers found that "PARO", a large, fluffy robotic harp seal, helped mid-to late-stage sufferers of dementia become less anxious, aggressive and lonely.
Professor Wendy Moyle from Griffith University, Australia led the pilot study, along with Professor Glenda Cook at the Northumbria University, as well as researchers from institutions in Germany.
The team evaluated what effect interactions with PARO had among people with dementia.
PARO is based on wild baby harp seals, the device comes installed with artificial intelligence software and tactile sensors that makes it capable of responding to sound or touch and showing emotions such as happiness, anger, and surprise.
It can even learn its own name and respond to words that it hears often.
Professor Cook with PARO the baby seal
Using clinical dementia measurements the researchers determined what impact PARO had on the participants in terms of anxiety, depression, and overall quality of life.
The results revealed that PARO had a significantly positive influence on quality of life and reduced any signs of anxiety.
There is already substantial evidence to suggest that interaction with animals can have a similar beneficial effect, increasing feelings of happiness and making people feel less lonely. A Saint Louis University study found that nursing home residents felt much less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than they did when they were visited by someone with a dog.
However, live animals can put home care residents at risk of injury or infection.
PARO, on the other hand, could be used in residential settings to help alleviate some of the symptoms of dementia among residents without risk of infection or injury.
Prof Cook, Professor of Nursing at Northumbria University, said:
"Our study provides important preliminary support for the idea that robots may present a supplement to activities currently in use and could enhance the life of older adults as therapeutic companions and, in particular, for those with moderate or severe cognitive impairment.
"There is a need for further research, with a larger sample size, and an argument for investing in interventions such as PARO robots which may reduce dementia-related behaviours that make the provision of care challenging as well as costly due to increased use of staff resources and pharmaceutical treatment."
The authors concluded that further studies are necessary to fully evaluate the effectiveness of PARO.
This video shows how robotic seals helped heal Japan's elderly tsunami victims:
Written by Joseph Nordqvist