Event Spotlight: The Neuropsychology of VR

To celebrate the upcoming release of his new book, Brennan Spiegel gathered some of the field’s top researchers for a talk entitled “VRx: How Virtual Therapeutics Will Revolutionize Medicine”. For this panel on “The Neuroscience of VR,” Dr. Skip Rizzo of the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC, Dr. Judy Pa of The Pa Lab at USC, and Dr. Nanthia Suthana of the Laboratory of Neuromodulation & Neuroimaging at UCLA offered their unique perspectives on Virtual Reality and the future of medicine.

Introduction to the speakers and their area of expertise:

Dr. Pa’s work focuses on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease in ways that are creative, simple, and safe for seniors to participate in. Her current project, Rescue Ranger, combines physical and cognitive challenges to strengthen neural connections in the brain. Research has provided evidence of exercise and cognitive stimulation as a key factor in prolonging the vitality of new neurons, resulting in memories that last longer and therefore prevent or delay the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Suthana’s studies focus on how the underlying functions of the brain can serve to better inform best practices for clinical treatment. Through the use of wearable devices, her laboratory gathers valuable objective data from bodily responses such as pulse, respiration, eye movements, and skin conductance. All of these signals offer valuable cues to guide practitioners in their care for a variety of mental challenges, such as difficulty with recall in Alzheimer’s or unpleasant emotions related to memories associated with PTSD.

Dr. Skip Rizzo is working at the Institute of Creative Technologies to develop interventions designed for a variety of neuropsychological needs, including ADHD in children and PTSD in military veterans. He has been involved in the development of VR within a medical context since the 1990’s, with many of his interventions contributing to the direction of modern research today. He emphasizes the development of VR as a means to assist with multiple aspects of the rehabilitation process, including training, assessment, and intervention as well.

On their vision of Virtual Reality’s future within medicine:

Skip Rizzo:
VR technology has become much more affordable in recent years, which has allowed for both clinicians and the general population to benefit from research. Issues surrounding delivery of content in a way that is convincing, engaging, and comfortable have begun to see major breakthroughs as well. We expect to see gains continue in all of these areas, which will result in many more interventions developed toward a variety of needs in the future. As 5G technology becomes widely adopted, clinicians will be able to quickly access materials to address a wide number of populations, which will eliminate many barriers currently being experienced surrounding content delivery.

Judy Pa:
Another issue that will need to be addressed as technology continues to advance is the matter of how well these devices can be incorporated into daily life. If you notice the way most of our wearables look at the present moment, they almost seem as though they belong to another world. It’s important that they can easily be put into the hands of users, and in the case of Alzheimer’s research, older adults who want a convenient way to stay mentally and physically stimulated as they age. To make it accessible to this degree, it needs to become something one could easily carry around and use in a variety of contexts, as well as simple to obtain in the first place.

Nathania Suthana:
It would also be great to see this technology become much more widely adapted within scientific research as a whole, going from the foreground to the background in how common it becomes in future treatments. This would be comparable to the growth of web development over time – what was once a specialized skill can now be done by anyone. We hope to see VR technology grow to the point that anyone can create their content with ease, test it out, and implement it easily. This will make it much easier to create, test, and develop experiments to quickly find the most effective interventions for many conditions.

On VR’s impact during COVID-19 and Beyond:

In the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, we have seen the adoption of telehealth and telemedicine services more rapidly than ever before. The progress we’ve made in the past six months would have taken years otherwise, and will likely continue to stay relevant long after the curve is flattened and a vaccine is found.

Another aspect of the pandemic that VR and XR could serve to address is the well-being of healthcare professionals, who are taking an incredible physical and emotional toll on the front lines. This could mean support in the form of PTSD treatment, mobile-enabled virtual coaches, or sensors using wearables that can guide practitioners’ care. Although we have yet to see how these needs will manifest themselves in the future, we must anticipate these challenges and apply the work we’ve done to this novel context to meet the needs of this important demographic.

You can access this panel along with the full event recording on Virtual Medicine Conference’s YouTube Channel. You can purchase Brennan Spiegel’s new book, “VRx: How Virtual Therapeutics Will Revolutionize Medicine” on Amazon here.