Man wearing VR headset

Virtual reality ‘could help to treat autism’, study suggests

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Playing games in virtual reality (VR) could be a key tool in treating people with neurological conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Waterloo.

The technology, according to researchers from the Canadian university, could help individuals with these neurological conditions shift their perception of time, which their conditions 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," said Séamas Weech, a post-doctoral 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,” Weech added.

The study conducted by the university involved 18 females and 13 males with normal vision and no sensory, musculoskeletal or neurological disorders.

Using a virtual reality game called Robo Recall, the researchers created a natural setting that encouraged re-calibration of time perception. The researchers then coupled the speed and duration of visual events to the participants’ body movements.

During the game, the team measured the participants’ time perception abilities before and after they were exposed to the VR tasks, with some of the participants completing non-VR time-perception tasks, as simple as throwing a ball, to use as a control comparison.

The researchers then measured the actual and perceived durations of a moving probe in the time perception tasks. As a result, they discovered that the VR manipulation was associated with reductions in the participants’ estimates of times, by around 15 per cent.

“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,” said Weech.

“It offers a compelling application for rehabilitation initiatives that focus on how time perception breaks down in certain populations.”

However, Weech added that more research needs to be done to find out how long the effects last, and whether or not these signals are observable in the brain, despite the strong effects seen throughout the current study.

“For developing clinical applications, we need to know whether these effects are stable for minutes, days, or weeks afterwards. A longitudinal study would provide the answer to this question,” he said.

Michael Barnett-Cowan, neuroscience professor in the Department of Kinesiology and senior author of the paper, added: “Virtual reality technology has matured dramatically. 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.”

The article ‘Movement-Contingent Time Flow in Virtual Reality Causes Temporal Recalibration’ was published in Scientific Reports.

In February 2019, specialists at Newcastle University developed a virtual realty session, known as the Blue Room, to help children with autism to overcome some of the fears and phobias that the condition can exacerbate.

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