A new study has revealed that virtual reality increases brain activity which can be crucial for learning, memory and even treating Alzheimer’s, ADHD and depression.
Well, at least in rats. After monitoring the brain activity of animals with tiny electrodes, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) found that electrical activity in a region known as the hippocampus was different when rodents were placed in environments of virtual reality and virtual reality.
(Before asking: no, the rats were not equipped with tiny VR headsets, instead of standing on a small moving track surrounded by screens).
The new findings are significant, as the hippocampus is the main engine of learning and memory, including space navigation, in the brain.
When rats walk normally, electrical activity in hippocampal neurons appears to be synchronized, at a rate of eight pulses per second (8Hz).
Pulses at this frequency are generally known as “theta waves,” with a stronger theta wave rhythm that appears to improve the brain’s ability to learn and retain sensory information. And when placed in a VR environment, the rat theta waves became quite stronger.
“It turns out amazing things happen when the rat is in virtual reality,” said Professor Mayank Mehta of UCLA’s physics, neurology, and electrical and computer engineering departments.
“We were surprised when we saw this huge effect of the virtual reality experience on improving the theta pace.”
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The scientists also found that VR environments altered the different electrical rhythms present in different parts of brain neurons.
“It was really mind-blowing,” Mehta said. “Two different parts of the neuron go at their own pace.”
What’s more interesting is that this new brain rhythm never seen before (which scientists called “eta”) was also reinforced in the virtual reality environment.
All of this indicates that scientists may be able to manipulate human brain rhythms in VR, not only to increase learning, but also to treat memory-related disorders that include ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and depression.
“This is a new technology that has huge potential,” Mehta said. “We have entered new territory.”
The study also indicates why virtual reality can favor these unique brain waves. As Mehta theorizes, much of it may be due to the very different set of stimuli presented by virtual reality.
For example, imagine now walking toward a real-life door. Your eyes see the door get bigger. But how do you know you’re taking a step forward and not getting the door?
The answer is that the brain uses information such as accelerating the head through space or shifting balance from one foot to the other, information that may not be present during a virtual reality experience.
“Our brain is doing it constantly, it’s checking all sorts of things,” Mehta said, adding that different theta rhythms can represent how brain regions communicate with each other to process this information.
This ultimately means that manipulating the sensory information available in VR can drastically affect the functioning of the brain.
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