ROBOTIC seals that respond to touch and speech are a step closer to being introduced on to dementia wards to help patients.

A robotic furry seal named Paro, which was the subject of studies at the University of Brighton, has already shown it can bring comfort to people with dementia and have a positive effect on their wellbeing.

However, concerns have been raised about preventing infection as while the robotic seal is therapeutic, experts believe it can be viewed as a hard-to-clean device.

Lead researcher Dr 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, with research showing that the seal lessens stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression and improves mood and speech fluency.

The seal has built-in sensors and its artificial intelligence allows it to learn and respond to names that patients decide to give it.

It also reacts to being stroked and spoken to by wriggling, turning to face the patient, opening its eyes and letting out a reassuring 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 should last about 12 years.”

He said its importance lies in improving patients’ quality of life.