Researchers at the University of Texas Austin have integrated an EEG sensor with a commercial VR headset to analyze brain activity during virtual interactions. The innovation improves measurement accuracy and comfort, enhancing applications from stress response studies to pilot attention assessment. This development aligns with the expanding role of VR in healthcare, exemplified by CMS’s inclusion of a VR program code. Other institutions, such as Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, are also exploring VR’s potential for patient care and medical innovations.
In a pioneering effort, a team of researchers from the University of Texas Austin has harnessed virtual reality (VR) technology to gauge brain activity, shedding light on human responses to stressors and external stimuli.
Amidst the surge of virtual healthcare solutions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the interest in augmented and virtual reality technologies has seen a concurrent rise. Notably, this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced a unique Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) Level II code for a VR program, underscoring the lasting impact of this technology on the healthcare sector.
Among the many initiatives across the nation harnessing VR for healthcare enhancement, the UT Austin research group stands out. Their innovation involves a noninvasive electroencephalogram (EEG) sensor ingeniously integrated with a Meta VR headset. This EEG apparatus measures the brain activity of users during their interactions in the virtual environment.
Dr. Nanshu Lu, a professor in the UT Austin Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, who spearheaded the project, emphasized the immersive nature of virtual reality, stating, “Virtual reality is so much more immersive than just doing something on a big screen… It gives the user a more realistic experience, and our technology enables us to get better measurements of how the brain is reacting to that environment.”
The potential applications for this technology span a wide range, from anxiety management to assessing the attention span of aviators or their mental stress levels.
The novel EEG sensor was realized through the creation of flexible, conductive electrodes composed of specialized materials. These electrodes are strategically placed along the headset’s top strap and forehead pad, forming a flexible circuit featuring conductive pathways. An EEG recording device is attached to the rear of the headset, overcoming common shortcomings of current VR and EEG devices. Notably, the enhanced comfort of these UT Austin electrodes could prolong wearability.
The effectiveness of the VR EEG headset was demonstrated through tests involving a driving simulation game. Collaborating with José del R. Millán, a faculty member in the UT Austin Chandra Family Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Dell Medical School, the team developed a game where users respond to turn commands by pressing buttons. The EEG records brain activity as users make driving decisions, offering insights into their attentiveness. Their findings have been published in Soft Science.
The researchers have initiated preliminary patent procedures for the EEG sensor.
Beyond Texas, healthcare providers and researchers throughout the nation are actively exploring the possibilities of VR in healthcare. For instance, Massachusetts General Hospital announced a randomized controlled trial in partnership with Rocket VR Health to evaluate a VR digital therapeutic designed to enhance the quality of life, mitigate symptoms, and distress, and improve self-efficacy among blood cancer patients.
Similarly, the University of Maryland School of Medicine established the Center for Medical Innovations in Extended Reality, collaborating with computer scientists, engineers from the University of Maryland College Park, and physician-scientists from the University of Michigan. This center aims to develop, test, and certify extended reality technologies for application in the healthcare realm.