Virtual reality shows promise for neurological disorders

Virtual reality could be a useful tool for treating patients with neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease, according to a recent study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The technology could help patients shift their perceptions of time, which these neurological conditions lead them to perceive differently, researchers said.

The study looked at 18 females and 13 males with normal vision and no sensory, musculoskeletal, or neurological disorders. The researchers used a virtual reality game, Robo Recall, where players are tasked with recalling defective legions of robots. The game, researchers said, creates a “natural setting in which to encourage recalibration of time perception.”

Researchers coupled the speed and duration of visual events to the participant’s body movements, according to the study abstract. The researchers measured participants’ time perception abilities before and after playing the game. Some participants also completed non-virtual reality time perception tasks, such as throwing a ball, to use as a control comparison.

The researchers measured the actual and perceived durations of moving a probe in the time perception tasks, the study said. They found that virtual reality manipulation was associated with significant reductions in the participants’ estimates of time, by around 15 percent. Further, the study points to the idea that perception of time is flexible, and virtual reality could potentially recallibrate time in the brain. 

While the initial results are strong, researchers said more studies are needed to find out how long the effects last, and whether these signals are observable in the brain. For developing clinical applications, researchers need to know whether these effects are stable for minutes, days, or weeks after using virtual reality. The next step, researchers said, could be a longitudinal study to answer these questions.