Researchers at King’s College London developed a virtual reality system that is intended to distract and calm patients who find MRI scans challenging, including children and other vulnerable individuals. The patient wears a specialized VR headset during the scan and can interact with the system merely by moving the eyes, allowing them to play games or select various options, including watching videos or interacting with a caregiver or companion over a video link. The technology is intended to make the scans more enjoyable for patients and reduce the likelihood that a scan will be unsuccessful because a patient moves or requests to exit the scanner.
The confined space, loud noises, and the need to keep still for prolonged periods can make MRI exams a grueling experience for many. Some patients find it particularly intolerable, and this can interfere with the ability of technicians to perform successful scans.
Some estimates have listed the success of MRI scans in children below the age of five years being as low as 50%, meaning that the scans must be repeated using sedatives or even anesthesia to ensure that patients can complete them. This is risky, inconvenient, and frustrating for patients and technicians alike. This latest technology aims to make patients forget that they are in a scanner by transporting them somewhere else, using virtual reality.
“We were keen to find other ways of enabling children and vulnerable people to have an MRI scan,” Dr Kun Qian, a researcher involved in the study. “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 designed a VR headset that is MRI compatible and completely blocks any peripheral light from entering, helping the wearer to forget their surroundings. The system also cleverly disguises noise and vibrations coming from the scanner by passing them off as incidents in the virtual world, such as noise and vibrations from construction work.
So far, the system contains a variety of media content and games that users interact with using eye movements, and even allows the user to interact with a companion outside the scanner using a video link and microphone.
“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,” said Qian. “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.”
“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,” added Dr Tomoki Arichi, another researcher involved in the study. “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, behavior and social skills develop across our lives.”
Check out this video about the VR content:
Study in Scientific Reports: An eye tracking based virtual reality system for use inside magnetic resonance imaging systems