Could VR be used to battle brain diseases?

5 Apr 2017

Image: Beto Chagas/Shutterstock

TSSG is changing the game with a VR approach to rewire the brain.

Researchers at TSSG in Waterford are on the cusp of a major breakthrough where virtual reality (VR) could be used to help rewire human brains and tackle Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and depression.

TSSG researcher Ian Mills is exploring how VR games can battle major brain diseases and disorders.

‘The system learns the brain and the person learns the experience, and we gradually see more improvements’

Focusing on the connectome, Mills is looking at the brain in the same way technologists would look at a topological map of a network.

“It can be thought of as a wiring map of the brain. In real-world network terms, this is the full network graph of the functional brain network and can be thought of on a micro scale as individual neurons as nodes, and synapses as edges. On the macro scale, nodes can be considered regions of interest, and the exons between these regions considered as the network edges.”

Training the brain to battle disease

Mills said that the key is to look for the outliers of brain diseases in an neurological sense and, in a virtual context, feed VR experiences to the brain.

“We are looking at how we can adopt those contexts to the users themselves, and allow them to change their brain function neural network to a common pattern and thus, alleviate the conditions that would be caused by a neurological disorder or disease such as depression, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.”

So does this mean we can create VR games that could help people mitigate the effects of depression, for example?

“Yes. You are looking at VR-adapted content that is very immersive to a person but if you learn their brain functional networks and start to change the context, it will allow you to change their neural state.

“So, not only are they feeling more immersed and getting a better experience out of the game, they are also learning to fix their mental state and alleviating the conditions of depression or anxiety. So you are gradually curing the person of their ailments.”

Before everyone gets excited, it is still a research project and Mills said there is a lot of work to be done to prove the concept.

“At the moment, we are currently collecting a large amount of data based on the subjective brain patterns or functional neural networks themselves, so we are gathering to see what the commonalities are in the brain connectome, nodes and edges between a large network structure.

“Once we have a basis for that network, what we have to look at is how we change the outliers. If we have a small network and can see the outliers, we can try and treat those brain diseases or disorders, get rid of those outliers, turn them into a normal brain state and give it to consumers.

“Once we have the initial work done, we can subjectively test candidates, change their brain states and allow people and the system and the brain to learn from each other,” Mills concluded.

“The system learns the brain and the person learns the experience, and we gradually see more improvements.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years