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Research: Virtual Reality Found to Amplify Brain Theta Rhythms

Aug 3, 2021 / SkillsVR

Virtual Reality is a powerful learning and training tool, with a wide variety of applications across industries ranging from soft skills training to hands-on technical skills training. While the reasons VR excels in this space are varied and well-researched (e.g. immersiveness, embodiment, realistic simulations, and more) a recent study has revealed new information that takes Virtual Reality’s influence on the brain to the next level.

According to this study published by UCLA professor Mayank Mehta and Project Scientist Karen Safaryan, Virtual Reality itself appears to be beneficial to brain activity and cognition. In the study, Mehta and Safaryan immersed mice in a VR environment that simulated their real-world environment as closely as possible. This resulted in the mice experiencing greatly amplified levels of theta rhythms in the brain.

Why is this finding significant? 

Boosted Theta Rhythms

More than 70,000 studies show that theta rhythms are critical in cognition, learning, and memory. Theta rhythms are also reported to show disruption in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, anxiety, and epilepsy.

Additionally, according to Healthline, “Experts believe that theta waves are important for processing information and making memories. And, as researchers learn more about how they work and how they’re linked to different types of learning, this knowledge may come in handy when determining the best way to help people learn.” 

Next Steps

Further research on how Virtual Reality boosted theta rhythms, and how this can be used for therapeutic purposes, are next on the list. 

"I think that was witchcraft in the brain, chaos,” he says. “[We have some] funky ideas. We are definitely spending a lot of effort [to figure it out]. Now we want to take this to town, and potentially use this as a VR therapy."

- Mehta, Fast Company

He argues that the boosted brain activity displayed by the mice wasn’t just because it felt like “real life.” Instead, he believes that something within the VR itself impacts the brain on a deep, electrical level, and that this breakthrough will allow VR to be used to revolutionize treatment for mental disorders, and could even be used to sharpen cognition to help people learn faster.

Originally published in Nature Neuroscience, the study “Enhanced hippocampal theta rhythmicity and emergence of eta oscillation in virtual reality,” showed that hippocampal theta rhythmicity was greatly amplified when rats ran in virtual reality compared to running in real life. 

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