In a few years we’ll be able to apply virtual reality to medical practice
Neuroscience is a group of disciplines devoted to the systematic understanding of a series of functions contained in the brain, including sensations, motor skills, learning, memory and our perception of our own body and its relationship with the world. In recent years, neuroscience has undergone an important transformation thanks to scientific breakthroughs like the development of high-resolution medical imaging technology to study brain activity and structure, giving us the chance to interact remotely using a virtual body. The How Mind Emerges from Brain: a View into the Future debate sessions allowed scientists to share the latest studies being carried out in the field of neuroscience from different disciplines and to forge contacts for future projects.
How would you rate the organization of these workshops to share experiences in neuroscience research?
This format of small-scale meetings is highly advantageous because it gives us much more direct contact with scientists from different disciplines and that is a luxury for us. Being able to meet in small sessions that foster very direct contact, both from a scientific and human point of view, enriches the scientific discussion. And, moreover, this leads to a middle- and long-term relationship that may produce new collaboration projects.
Is medical imaging technology changing what we know about our brain?
The use of virtual reality to study brain function gives us much more information on our neural systems, which we can't get from other techniques. There is a function of visualizing brain structures that through virtual reality, using a stereoscopic system, gives us more sensory information and allows us to immerse ourselves in a digital world that is virtual but also conforms to the rules of the real world; a virtual reproduction. And with stereoscopic vision we can study the brain by visualizing neurons, their structures and interactions, static and dynamic, and this has advantages over other forms of visualization.
And can this new vision of the brain change what we know about neural systems and about ourselves?
We can come to understand how the brain generates the sensation of ownership of our body. There is a part of the brain that processes tactile, visual and auditory information but there isn’t a specific part of the brain that gives us a general perception of our body, that processes that our body is ours, or that that arm is yours… It is a process of integrating different sensory modes and motor information. In this sense, virtual reality is a highly useful tool because it allows you to have a virtual body and an experimental situation in which you can generate alterations in that virtual body and see which information sources are really critical to us interpreting our body as our own.
What impact does this knowledge have on medical practice?
In addition to the interest in seeing how the brain generates the sensation of having a body, this virtual reality has many other applications in different areas of neurorehabilitation, can be integrated into the brain/computer interface and can give us a way to interact with the world through a virtual body.
Right now we’re in the experimentation phase on a specific application of the European BEAMING project that aims to transport people instantly from one physical place in the world to another so they can interact with people where they have beenteletransported. This happens by changing their means of perception at their destination, and breaking down their physiological actions and emotional state, through a data feed transferred via the Internet. The idea is that one person can have another body in another location and control it remotely, using virtual reality or a robot.
Which specific applications can this have for neurorehabilitation?
In the first stages, it would be applied to rehabilitation therapies. In this European project we are developing a medical application to remotely care for patients with difficulty moving that need to do rehabilitation. The idea is that the patient can interact with a virtual reality system, can teletransport to the hospital so the doctor can see them. For example, if the doctor has to look at a patient’s arm, the patient can move remotely it in a way that can be quantified immediately, monitoring force and checking for evolution, monitoring change. To do this, physiological signals are sent via the Internet and the doctor receives all the information online with parameters of strength and physiology, range of motion, electrocardiograms, electromyograms, etc.
When will we be able to see this application in clinical practice?
We’re currently in the experimental development stage, working with cutting-edge technology, but in a few years we can develop a version that is easier to implement, due to price and portability, and apply virtual reality to medical practice. In fact, this year we will start testing this virtual reality with patients from various hospital centers.
Can this interaction lead to a new reality that alters our knowledge of our body?
Part of the basic research focuses on how you can feel that a virtual body is your own if you give it the right multisensory and motor correlations. At IDIBAPS, ICREA and the UB we have been working on research that shows that, by using virtual reality, we can come to perceive an arm three or four times longer that any real extremity as our own as long as the information sent to the brain is the same. This way, the brain can accept that your arm, even through it is longer, is yours because the rest of the correlations are correct. Now, the moment you give it stimuli that don’t match up, the illusion disappears.
But if it changes our perception of our own body, can it also change our perception of ourselves?
Yes, it’s true; this is a very interesting aspect of our work because the self is defined by our own body and how we see our body can influence many of our perceptions of ourselves and our world. There are studies that say, for example, that if you have a bigger body in virtual reality, people negotiate more aggressively than if you’re given a smaller body.
And what impact can this have on society?
This is a very interesting topic from both a neuroethics and a legal standpoint. In fact, this fall, under the framework of the European VERE project (Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment) a workshop will be held with professionals from the legal sector in order to discuss all of the legal ramifications of having a remote-controlled robot. For example, what happens if you’re controlling a robot that is in London from Barcelona and you use it for purposes other than it was intended? Who is responsible? How is this responsibility attributed? It a new issue in our legal framework and it must begin to be regulated.
In addition to the new legal implications, the mere fact of modifying how we see our bodies, the inputs that reach our brains, for example, regarding feelings, also opens up a series of ethical gray areas.
Yes, it can happen. And, in fact, the VERE project is working with philosopher Thomas Metzinger,who is in charge of coordinating all the neuroethical aspects and implications of having a virtual body. Metzinger has worked extensively on the question of the ego, of how modifying your body affects the self and your physical presence in the world, as the body is a key element of what we consider to be our self. With the use of virtual reality, we are also creating a new legal and ethical reality that opens up many new doubts and challenges we will have to face.