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Parma Heights teen developing innovative dementia treatment

Olivia Wenzel
Posted at 10:40 AM, Aug 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-20 11:01:54-04

PARMA HEIGHTS, Ohio — A Parma Heights teen is dedicating herself to changing the world and is being rewarded for her accomplishments.

Olivia Wenzel just graduated in June from Laurel School, an all-girl private school in Shaker Heights, and as she prepares for college she is also working on a project to help individuals with cervical dystonia and individuals with dementia.

During an internship at Cleveland Clinic, Wenzel was inspired by a patient with cervical dystonia, a painful condition that causes neck muscles to contract involuntarily, causing the individual’s head to twist or turn to one side. The patient said the treatment he was given had no noticeable effect on his severe head tremors.

Wenzel spent months researching and working with a neurology fellow at the Clinic and helped prototype TremorLess, a non-invasive wearable device that mitigates head tremors.

The teen didn’t stop there. With a family history of dementia, Wenzel wanted to find a way to improve the quality of life for people with dementia.

Olivia Wenzel virtual reality

Wenzel created a business, AltruTec, and her current venture is called Memorcize—a virtual reality game that uses images, music and memories to help showcase nostalgic elements from a person’s past.

“They’re meant to trigger positive memories and conversation. It can help improve mood, ease agitation, improve concentration and communication, a whole host of different behavioral and psychological benefits,” Wenzel said.

Wenzel was introduced to a biomedical engineer who helped her develop her idea and encouraged her to reach out to local companies, universities and students to create a team to help her with her endeavors at AltruTec.

As she continued her work, Wenzel was invited to speak at the Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit and grew her team even further.

A few months later, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people were forced to stay inside more, Wenzel discovered a new issue she wanted to tackle.

“The basic problem I was trying to solve was I realized it can be difficult for familial caregivers to dedicate all hours of the day to engaging their loved ones in meaningful, physical, cognitive and social activities,” Wenzel said. “Then as I was learning more and more about long term care, it’s nearly impossible for even the best staff to meet the very precise, unique needs of every resident.”

Wenzel said now more than ever with the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults everywhere are at a heightened risk for continued isolation and a lack of activity, which can be extremely detrimental to health and well being.

This summer, Wenzel and her team have prototyped a game that aims to engage the minds and bodies of individuals with early to moderate dementia, with hopes for a social connection to be added to the game soon allowing family and friends to join them in the game.

Right now, the game is played on a computer but Wenzel hopes to develop the game to be played on a television or mobile device. When playing the game, the user sits in front of the computer and they “move” through a nostalgic environment.

Wenzel’s first environment for the game was a county fair that’s specific to Northeast Ohio. The game features period-appropriate music, interactive characters and activities to further stimulate their minds and bodies.

The Parma Heights teen hopes to further personalize her virtual reality game down the line.

Olivia Wenzel at computer

Wenzel said that her projects are in the early stages and her team is mostly made up of high school and college students, so she can’t claim any specific benefit to her project because the research into their development hasn’t been done, but she hopes that it will be soon.

Wenzel has already begun collecting accolades, including the 2020 Claes Nobel Future Female Leader Scholarship awarded by the National Society of High School Scholars.

As she builds her company and aims to find ways to make the world a better place, Wenzel is also preparing to start her first semester studying computer science at Harvard University.

Wenzel said she’s excited to further her education, as well as AltruTec, and had some advice for the next generation of innovators.

“I would just encourage everyone to learn as much as you can, chase after your passions and ask lots of questions because asking questions is what has led me to every opportunity or exciting project that I’ve taken on and I think it’s very powerful to ask questions.”