A novel interactive VR system to be used by patients when undertaking an MRI has been created by researchers from King’s College London.
This advancement is hope to make it easier for those who find having a MRI scan challenging such as children, people with cognitive difficulties, or those who suffer from claustrophobia or anxiety, said the researchers in a new paper published in Scientific Reports.
Hospitals often rely on sedative medication or even anaesthesia to get children successfully scanned as MRI scans fail in up to 50 percent of children under 5 years of age, in normal circumstances.
These measures are expensive, time consuming and have their own associated risks. In normal circumstances MRI based studies of brain function are generally only ever studied in these vulnerable populations during an artificial induced sleep state, so may not be representative of how the brain works, from a neuroscience point of view.
The lead researcher from the school of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences at King’s College London, Dr. Kun Qian, said having an MRI scan can be quite an alien experience as it involves going into a narrow tunnel, with loud and often strange noises in the background, all while having to stay as still as possible.
“We were keen to find other ways of enabling children and vulnerable people to have an MRI scan” Dr. Qian said.
“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. “
The researchers developed a special VR headset that can be safely used inside MRI scanner in order to provide patients with an immersive VR environment. The headset is thus designed to be light tight, so that the user cannot see their surrounding environment at all and is unaware of visual reminders of their position.
Once properly positioned, the system’s projector is immediately live, providing immersive contents while the VR experience is then continuous from that point onwards until the patient is removed at the end of the examination.
This and other measures are highly effective at removing the sense of being inside the MRI scanner, as their visual scene is completely replaced with the VR environment and through creating congruence with the other sensations that are perceived during MRI examinations such as scanner noise, table movement and vibration, said the researchers.
Elements that indicate that construction work is in progress in the virtual world, which could account for scanner noise has been included to achieve this. One of the main novelties with this system is that the users can interact with the virtual world just with eye gaze.
At the moment, there are no other such MR compatible systems which combine a VR presentation system with intuitive interaction in this way.
Going by their gaze (just looking at objects or areas in the VR environment), so the users can navigate through the virtual world, to select content such as films and games, play games and to initiate or terminate video link to their carer.
The bottommost means that an anxious patient can interact at will with a carer at any time during their examination via a Webcam with microphone and a display monitor installed in the console area.
According to the researchers the next steps 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 as 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 a 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.”
Reference : ” An eye tracking based virtual reality system for use inside magnetic resonance imaging systems ” by Kun Qian, Tomoki Arichi, Anthony Price, Sofia Dall’Orso, Jonathan Eden, Yohan Noh, Kawal Rhode, Etienne Burdet, Mark Neil, A. David Edwards and Joseph V. Hajnal, 11 August 2021,Scientific Reports.