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VR and brain health: What we know so far

Fitness & Health / Science / Tech
VR-brain-health

This list highlights how VR has positives and negatives associated with it — like most things in the world.

Photo by Giu Vicente

Virtual reality (VR) is still an emerging technology, and it could be years before people recognize its full potential.

However, scientists are already investigating how it impacts brain health in both positive and negative ways. Here are some of the revealed findings.

1. VR Can Potentially Predict Future Declines in Brain Health or Traumatic Injuries to the Brain

Alzheimer’s disease is substantially debilitating for patients who suffer from it as well as their caregivers.

Not surprisingly, then, there’s a push to identify at-risk people as soon as possible to help them pursue treatment and otherwise prepare for what may lie ahead. Scientists realize that VR could be a help in finding individuals who may develop Alzheimer’s.

In 2015, a study showed that the manner in which participants navigated through a VR maze determined whether they had reduced functioning of a brain cell responsible for helping people move through space. Researchers hoped their findings would shed light on why people with dementia have difficulty finding their way around.

More recently, a game called Sea Quest Hero has been helping scientists compile cognitive response data across various age groups.

The game requires people to use different parts of their brains for various tasks. Scientists think the information they receive will improve research into diseases that cause decreased brain functionality.

After playing the game for only two minutes, a participant generates an amount of data equivalent to five years of lab research.

VR can diagnose short-term brain issues as well and specifically determine if athletes have sustained concussions. The so-called Eye-Sync Goggles track how well a person’s brain predicts the movement of a dot, plus how their eyes follow that dot. The results could help doctors determine whether a concussion has occurred.

2. Parents Are Concerned About the Long-Term Effects of VR on Their Kids

One of the downsides of any new technology is that people can only speculate about its long-term effects until the innovation has been widely used in the marketplace for a substantial amount of time.

A report released by Common Sense Media found that 60 percent of the 3,600 parents polled said they were at least somewhat concerned about how VR might bring about negative health effects.

According to a co-author of that study, the number of research papers about VR and its effect on kids’ cognitive development could be counted on one hand.

That means there are many questions about whether VR alters aspects of the brain. For example, the brain could get confused when processing content on a VR headset screen that appears far away but is actually only centimeters away.

Also, there are worries that the use of VR in kids may adversely affect their brain health later in life. It seems particularly dependent on the age a child begins using VR. The prefrontal cortex, which relates to things like impulse control and working memory, has an accelerated progression during the mid-childhood years.

Scientists know that working memory — which relates to storing information over seconds and minutes — develops and improves during the early years of life, reaches a peak in a person’s 20s and declines thereafter.

So is there a chance that VR might disrupt brain health early in life and negatively affect it in adulthood as a result? It will likely be a while before scientists conclude whether parents’ concerns are warranted but what they know now is that they’re already uneasy about the possibility of later problems becoming apparent.

3. VR Could Help the Brain Overcome Upsetting Stimuli and Social Awkwardness

Most people have at least a few things that make them feel scared, such as heights or spiders. Research indicates that VR experiences could help people conquer those fears, acting as a mental health game changer.

Therapists can set up scenarios of distressing virtual situations and coach patients through them in their offices. Then, when people encounter these things in real life, their brains know there’s no need for such intense fear.

A recent study of soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that the soldiers who went through exposure therapy with VR had significantly reduced PTSD symptoms, and the positive effects were still present at a six-month follow-up appointment.

Another project helps kids with autism and social cognition differences feel more socially confident and achieve more independence in situations that might otherwise be overwhelming. The team behind it thinks the use of VR could combat social bullying in schools too.

4. VR Negatively Affects How Some People Perceive the Real World

VR developers know there’s a precise way to trick the brain into perceiving the virtual worlds. In short, there cannot be a significant disconnect between what happens in real life and in the virtual world. But that effort to make virtual scenery as lifelike as possible means some people experience what they call an “existential hangover.”

When it happens, affected individuals report a detached sadness when they engage with the real world. Other people said even when they knew for sure that a VR experience had ended, it was as if a lower part of their brain wasn’t sure and wanted to stay in a virtual setting.

More Research Is Essential

This list highlights how VR has positives and negatives associated with it — like most things in the world. Since VR is still a new technology, people cannot assume that either the good things or the bad ones will hold true over the long-term.

For example, scientists may prove that parents need not be worried about how VR affects kids’ brain development. Or, they could discover that some of the apparent benefits of VR don’t last as long as people initially thought.

The brain and its function are essential to how people live and view the world. It’ll be interesting to continually follow the associated developments about VR and brain health beyond what’s covered here.

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