VR could help neurological disorder sufferers

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada say virtual reality (VR) games could be used to treat neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

Ambika Bansal, Séamas Weech and Michael Barnett-Cowan used VR game Robo Recall to recalibrate the time perception of 31 individuals.

Individuals who suffer from neurological conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease shift their perceptions of time, which their disorders lead them to perceive differently.

“The ability to estimate the passage of time with precision is fundamental to our ability to interact with the world,” explained study co-author Weech, a postdoctoral fellow in kinesiology. “For some individuals, however, the internal clock is maladjusted, causing timing deficiencies that affect perception and action.

“Studies like ours help us to understand how these deficiencies might be acquired, and how to recalibrate time perception in the brain.”

The University of Waterloo study, which was published in Scientific Reports, featured 18 females and 13 males with normal vision and no sensory, musculoskeletal or neurological disorders.

Using VR game Robo Recall, the researchers created a natural setting in which to encourage re-calibration of time perception.

The researchers coupled the speed and duration of visual events to the participant’s body movements, and then measured their time perception abilities before and after they were exposed to the VR task. Some also completed non-VR time-perception tasks, such as throwing a ball, to use as a control comparison.

By measuring the actual and perceived durations of a moving probe in the time perception tasks, they discovered that the VR manipulation was associated with significant reductions in the participants’ estimates of time, by around 15%.

Neurological benefits

“This study adds valuable proof that the perception of time is flexible, and that VR offers a potentially valuable tool for recalibrating time in the brain,” explained Weech. “It offers a compelling application for rehabilitation initiatives that focus on how time perception breaks down in certain populations.”

Further research is required, however, to ascertain how long the effects last, and whether these signals are observable in the brain. Weech said: “For developing clinical applications, we need to know whether these effects are stable for minutes, days, or weeks afterward. A longitudinal study would provide the answer to this question.”

“VR now convincingly changes our experience of space and time, enabling basic research in perception to inform our understanding of how the brains of normal, injured, aged and diseased populations work and how they can be treated to perform optimally.”

Michael Barnett-Cowan, a neuroscience professor in the kinesiology department at the University of Waterloo

“Virtual reality technology has matured dramatically,” added Barnett-Cowan, a neuroscience professor in the kinesiology department at the University of Waterloo, and senior author of the paper.

“VR now convincingly changes our experience of space and time, enabling basic research in perception to inform our understanding of how the brains of normal, injured, aged and diseased populations work and how they can be treated to perform optimally.”