Scientists test two types of VR devices — in healthy people and sick ones

At 21, Jodi Carlson is a bright college student. She played for the University of Washington’s tennis team and is now studying biomedical engineering. But she’s spending her evenings at a local wellness center, working on brain training devices.

In the developing world, brain injuries are common. But there is limited research on whether virtual reality devices could help treat people with mental health disorders and other neurological illnesses.

Now, scientists at Stanford University are using technology to experiment with improving brain power in humans. In one trial, Carlson was placed in a treadmill and asked to complete mental challenge after mental challenge. Her brain performance was measured during the MRI and later when she reported on how well she performed on the mental games.

Carlson said the mind-mapping MRI tests were an accurate way to determine whether she was having a difficult time or if the tests were identifying mental illness in her brain. In another trial, Carlson was placed in a virtual reality device and experienced different environments and sports, all the while wearing a cap with electrodes that recorded her brain wave activity.

The Stanford scientists found that in various environments, the amount of electrical activity in Carlson’s brain correlated strongly with the type of device she chose to use. These results are novel because they have shown there is an accurate way to measure the activity of specific brain areas as the user interacts with the environment.

The team’s ultimate goal is to use this method to identify people who are at high risk for serious mental health issues. When people are facing serious mental illness, “it takes a great deal of time to get treatment and to make progress,” said Phoebe Lewis, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, who led the research.

Lewis said the method could improve people’s quality of life, not just their treatment for mental health conditions. For example, the technique could inform clinicians about which drugs could be given to patients in the greatest proportion of patients.

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