Virtual Reality in Neuroscience - What is the Future?
Virtual Reality (VR): It is being used to decode the internal working of the human brain. By tasking people and rodents with solving puzzles inside virtual spaces, neuroscientists hope to learn how the brain navigates the environment and remembers spatial information.
Immersive Virtual Reality offers a digital reproduction of real-life environments, whereas Augmented Reality (AR) provides additional information or greater interactivity with the surrounding environment and in both cases, there is a great potential in changing the neuroscience research landscape. Immersive technologies have shown their potential in the evaluation and treatment of various psychological disorders such as anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and eating disorders.
Virtual Reality has finally come of age for serious applications in behavioral neurosciences. This technology allows for the creation of fully interactive, three-dimensional computerized models of social situations that can be fully controlled by the experimenter. Furthermore, the introduction of interactive virtual characters—either driven by a human or by a computer—allows the researcher to test, in a systematic and independent manner, the effects of various social cues. Recently, however, improvements in computer speed, quality of head-mounted displays and wide-area tracking systems have made VR attractive for both research and real-world applications in neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology.
Virtual Reality as Simulation Technology
An increasingly popular hypothesis—predictive coding—suggests that the brain actively maintains an internal model (simulation) of the body and the surrounding space, which provides predictions about the expected sensory input and tries to minimize the number of prediction errors. This approach is used not only for actions but also for concepts and emotions. So, the simulation of a concept involves its reenactment in modality-specific brain areas. Moreover, the brain uses emotional concepts to categorize sensations.
Virtual Reality: It uses computer technology to create a simulated world that individuals can manipulate and explore as if they were in it. Specifically, VR hardware tracks the motion of the user, while VR software adjusts the images on the user's display to reflect the changes produced by the motion in the virtual world. This prediction is then used to provide the expected sensory input using VR hardware. The VR system maintains a model (simulation) of the body and the surrounding space.
Virtual Reality as Embodied Technology
If presence in the body is the outcome of different embodied simulations, and VR is a simulation technology, this suggests the possibility of altering the experience of the body by designing targeted virtual environments. In this view, VR can be defined as an “embodied technology” for its possibility of modifying the embodiment experience of its users. Up to now, VR has been used to simulate external reality, that is, to make people feel “real” what is actually not really there. But what is the real clinical potential of VR as an embodied technology? According to neuroscience, the body matrix serves to maintain the integrity of the body at both the homeostatic and psychological levels by supervising the cognitive and physiological resources necessary to protect the body and space around it. Specifically, the body matrix plays a critical role in high-end cognitive processes such as motivation, emotion, social cognition, and self-awareness, while exerting a top-down modulation over basic physiological mechanisms such as thermoregulatory control and the immune system. An altered functioning of the body matrix and/or its related processes might be the cause of different neurological and psychiatric conditions. If this is true, VR can be the core of a new trans-disciplinary research field—embodied medicine—the main goal of which is the use of advanced technology for altering the body matrix, with the goal of improving people's health and well-being.
Virtual Reality as Cognitive Technology
VR is an embodied technology for its ability to modify the experience of the body. However, the body is not simply an object like any other; it has a special status. It is perceived in a multisensory way, from the outside (exteroception, the body perceived through the senses) as well as from within (inner body, including interoception, the sense of the physiological condition of the body; proprioception, the sense of the position of the body/body segments; and vestibular input, the sense of motion of the body) and from memory. This is true for the simulative code used by the brain for creating concepts. The body integrates visceral/autonomic (interoceptive), motor (proprioceptive), and sensory information. If concepts are embodied simulations, and VR is an embodied technology, it should be possible to facilitate cognitive modeling and can be changed by designing targeted virtual environments which could modify concepts both from outside and from inside.
Concept of “Sonoception,” a novel noninvasive technological paradigm based on wearable acoustic and vibrotactile transducers, has a possible approach to structure, augment, and/or replace the contents of the inner body. The first outcome of an integrated VR platform was able to simulate both the external and the inner world with the possibility of structuring, augmenting, and/or replacing all the different experiential aspects of bodily self-consciousness, with clinical applications in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia, and neurological disorders, such as chronic pain and neglect.
The chart above shows the total count of patents assigned in the last 20 years in the Virtual Reality for the neuroscience field. There was an upward trend in the patents assigned with 462 patents in total from 2001 to 2020. A steep incline was seen from 2015 up to the middle of 2017 with the maximum number of patents i.e. 64 patents. The latest data recorded for the year 2020 showed 39 patents in the Virtual Reality for neuroscience technology trend.
Future of Virtual Reality in Neuroscience
Virtual and augmented reality devices are measurement tools that generate large amounts of behavioural and neurological data, both in test modes by industry and through consumer use. To advance science, industry and academia should work together to identify ways to improve researchers’ access to this data while safeguarding user privacy and research ethics.
There needs to be more research into how VR use may affect the development of a child’s brain, both to understand how its use in educational programs could be beneficial, and how excessive use could be harmful, particularly in developing the child’s sense of reality. More broadly, it is as yet uncertain how the design of VR experiences could shape users’ social behaviour.
Better tools for reading and capturing thoughts, which open the door to more intuitive and less effortful control by users, also raise questions about privacy and data ownership that will need to be tackled by interdisciplinary dialogue among neuroscientists, technology developers, ethicists, social scientists, legal scholars and more. It might be instructive to look at how other fields, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) or genomics, are tackling the ethical implications arising from their research and applications (e.g., through the creation of stakeholder/user communities controlling their own data).
In conclusion, even if VR is already a reality in behavioral health, the possibility of using it to simulate both the external and internal world may open new clinical options in the near future able to target the experience of the body and its related processes directly. Psychosomatics is an interdisciplinary field that explores the relationships between psychosocial, behavioral factors, and bodily processes. The long-term goal of the vision presented is the use of simulative technologies—both simulating the external world and the internal one—to reverse engineer the psychosomatic processes that connect mind and body but all the benefits of using these tools are not yet known and exploited. The brain sciences are therefore opening up new horizons for cognitive sciences and new practical possibilities, also susceptible to important ethical implications which must also be discussed.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, AI, VR, Neuroscience, Life Sciences, Medical Devices, Patents