Virtual reality in neuroscience research and therapy

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Key Points

  • Virtual reality (VR) combines a high degree of control with ecological validity, and has important benefits for basic neuroscience research and therapeutic applications.

  • VR is compatible with non-invasive imaging technologies, as well as with invasive cell recording techniques, which makes it uniquely valuable for studying brain activity during realistic situations. In recent years, researchers have developed VR systems that are compatible with animal research.

  • VR has provided new insights into the activity of brain regions involved in spatial cognition and navigation, multisensory integration of perceptual stimulation, and social interaction.

  • VR continues to accrue confirmatory evidence for the treatment of phobias owing to its ability to provide powerful sensory illusions within a highly controlled environment. The effects of VR on phobia treatment can be commensurate with in situ and imaginal exposure therapies, and it has been applied to the treatment of a wide range of phobias, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • The interactivity and motivation produced by VR stimuli have proven useful for neurorehabilitation after brain injury, as well as for pain reduction.

  • Brain–computer interface technology is rapidly improving, and VR environments are valuable for allowing patients to use neuromotor prosthetics in a safe environment.

  • VR is likely to become more ubiquitous as equipment continues to become more robust, inexpensive and easier to use. A likely trend will be towards increased mobility, particularly the use of augmented reality for research and therapy.

Abstract

Virtual reality (VR) environments are increasingly being used by neuroscientists to simulate natural events and social interactions. VR creates interactive, multimodal sensory stimuli that offer unique advantages over other approaches to neuroscientific research and applications. VR's compatibility with imaging technologies such as functional MRI allows researchers to present multimodal stimuli with a high degree of ecological validity and control while recording changes in brain activity. Therapists, too, stand to gain from progress in VR technology, which provides a high degree of control over the therapeutic experience. Here we review the latest advances in VR technology and its applications in neuroscience research.

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Figure 1: Virtual reality environments for studying insect navigation.
Figure 2: Examples of virtual environments for therapeutic application.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by grant number R31-10062 to F.A.B. from the World Class University (WCU) project of the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) and the Korea National Research Foundation (NRF) through Sungkyunkwan University. The project was also supported in part by the AT&T and Newhouse endowments awarded to F.A.B.

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Glossary

Ecological validity

Refers to experimental conditions that are reasonably similar to those in a real-world setting. In virtual environments, contextually rich simulations with multiple sensory cues might be considered to have greater ecological validity than environments that are limited to only the necessary and sufficient features for an experiment.

Morris water maze

A classic experimental paradigm used to assess spatial navigation abilities. Traditionally, an animal swims around a pool for a number of trials, freely exploring the space. In later trials, the goal is to find the fastest route to a submerged platform.

Place cell

Hippocampal cell that encodes different components of the relationships between spatial locations.

Place fields

Populations of hippocampal place cells that enable the formation of spatial memories. Collectively, these 'fields' enable the encoding and recall of complex spatial relationships.

Binding problem

The integration of sensory cues and information in higher-level cortical regions underlies cognition and consciousness. Binding requires large-scale synchronization of cortical activity to create a unified perceptual experience.

Theory of mind

The ability to empathize with another individual. It involves the tendency of humans to attribute mental states — such as goals, beliefs and knowledge — to another individual that are in some way analogous with our own mental state.

Mentalizing

Mentalizing is the process of interpreting the intention of others, allowing one to anticipate the behaviour of objects and individuals.

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Bohil, C., Alicea, B. & Biocca, F. Virtual reality in neuroscience research and therapy. Nat Rev Neurosci 12, 752–762 (2011) doi:10.1038/nrn3122

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