Researchers have developed a virtual reality (VR) system designed to help ease anxieties during MRI scans.
The interactive VR technology has been created by researchers from King’s College London with the aim of making the MRI scan experience easier for those who may find it challenging, such as children and people with cognitive difficulties.
The research has been published in Scientific Reports.
Lead researcher Dr Kun Qian, from the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences at King’s College London, said: “We were keen to find other ways of enabling children and vulnerable people to have an MRI scan.
“Our interest in VR specifically came from the simple observation that, when someone is using and then immersed in a VR environment, they are entirely unaware of their surroundings. We thought, if we could make a system compatible with the MRI environment, it could be a very powerful alternative way to successfully scan these challenging populations.”
For those who find an MRI scan difficult, many hospitals rely on sedative medication or even anaesthesia to successfully complete the scan. Such measures, however, are time-consuming, costly, and carry associated risks. In the case of these vulnerable populations, it also means that MRI-based studies of brain function are usually only ever studied during an artificially induced sleep state, and so may not be representative of how the brain works in normal circumstances.
To create an immersive environment to detract from the anxiety-inducing nature of the MRI scan, researchers developed a special VR headset that can be safely used inside the MRI scanner. The headset is designed to be light tight, preventing the user from seeing their surrounding environment and any visual reminders of their setting. Once the system is properly in place, the projector is immediately live and provides content up until the examination has finished.
As well as creating a visual distraction, the system also creates a congruence with other sensations that are perceived during MRI examinations, such as scanner noise, table movement, and table vibration. For example, by including elements in the virtual scene that indicate that construction work is in progress, which could account for scanner noise and vibration.
Navigated by eye gaze
A unique element to the system is that users can interact with the scene using their eye gaze. Users can navigate the virtual world using their eyes to select content such as films and games, play games, and to initiate or terminate a video link to their companion/carer. The video link feature makes it possible for a patient to interact with a companion or carer at any time during their examination via a webcam with a microphone and a display monitor installed in the console area.
The researchers say the next step for the system is to develop content and test it with patients.
“Developing the right content is crucial, as for the system to be effective it needs to maintain a subject/patient’s attention and their sense of immersion for as long as possible. As this content is likely to be very different depending on age and cognitive capabilities, getting this right and tailoring it for different clinical and study populations is a key next step,” Dr Qian said.
Co-author Dr Tomoki Arichi said: “We are very excited about the possibilities that this system opens up for vulnerable and important populations like children and those with difficulties which might mean they can’t normally have an MRI scan without being put to sleep. Not only could this make an enormous difference for everyday clinical practice, but it also opens the way for us to gain dramatic new insight into how patterns of brain function, behaviour and social skills develop across our lives.”