The craze for Virtual Reality (VR) is bigger than ever nowadays, and for good reason. With its limitless expansive capabilities, VR is the new frontier of video game production. However, before it became the latest “holiday must have,” the medical field was already tapping into the endless possibilities that VR presents.
Virtual Reality instruments in the medical field have been growing in popularity for a few years. Many different avenues are being explored that could potentially make VR the next generation go-to technology in academic and industrial labs. From it’s applications in surgical studies, to understanding more about neurological diseases, VR is ushering in a new age of technological advancements for mankind.
In 2014, scientists at the University of California investigated the applications of VR in striving to answer common neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and the effects of a stroke.
Researchers experimented with a rodent model system where rats were placed in a virtual environment and harnessed to a miniature treadmill (to give the realistic effect of walking). The rats’ brain activity was monitored using tiny wires that are many fractions smaller than a strand of human hair. These wires were able to record the activity of an array of neurons and their responses during each experiment.
Mayank Mehta and his colleagues (scientists at UCLA) went into this study knowing that the brain is capable of creating mental maps of your surroundings by incorporating your senses and visual information. These cells are known as “GPS cells” and are what allow you to navigate through environments and remember your surroundings. This reaction occurs in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is the main area affected by most neurodegenerative diseases.
Ultimately the study concluded that the GPS cells that were tracked flared in a particular sequence when the rats were placed in a real environment, while as when exposed to the virtual environment the flares were random and not conclusive; the brain was not recognizing the VR world as a real environment and thus was not mapping it.
If you ask me, a device primarily used as a videogame having such an impact on other fields is astonishing. This proves that the application of virtual worlds and videogame environments have an impact and can contribute to the growth of science.