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Virtual and Augmented Reality methods in Neuroscience and Neuropathology

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Immersive technologies are increasingly popular nowadays and have seen remarkable improvements over the past decade. Their affordability has led to tremendous interest in the use of these tools by different research fields, especially in neuroscience.

Immersive Virtual Reality (VR) offers a digital ...

Immersive technologies are increasingly popular nowadays and have seen remarkable improvements over the past decade. Their affordability has led to tremendous interest in the use of these tools by different research fields, especially in neuroscience.

Immersive Virtual Reality (VR) offers a digital reproduction of real-life environments, whereas Augmented Reality (AR), provide additional information or greater interactivity with the surrounding environment. Both have great potential in changing the neuroscience research landscape. The complex dynamics of the human brain requires increasingly sophisticated tools to promote the understanding of its functions. In a continuous reciprocal exchange, neuroscience is providing an understanding about how the use of AR/VR technologies can influence the brain, at the same time VR and AR provide neuroscience with new ways to test theories and concepts related to complex cognitive and perceptive phenomena. With the use of VR/AR technologies, the gap between "real" and mediated experience is becoming smaller and smaller, thus increasing the ecological validity of experimental paradigms.
The compatibility of these tools with imaging technologies allows researchers to accurately present and control multimodal stimuli with high degrees of validity, testing scenarios difficult to recreate using conventional research methods, as well as simultaneously recording and tracking changes in brain and behavioral activities. Immersive technologies have shown their potential in the evaluation and treatment of various psychological disorders such as anxiety, PTSD, depression and eating disorders. Today they also face the challenge of diagnosis and cognitive training of different psychiatric and neurological conditions, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, psychosis, autism or traumatic brain injury, allowing research to evolve beyond traditional approaches. VR/AR applications can provide a unique setting in which subjects can feel directly involved, explore without fear of dangerous consequences, increasing motivation through engaging experiences.

Treatments can be customized for each patient and, for example, monitored to test the ability to perform certain tasks over time. In behavioral research, the use of immersive reality instruments is allowing researchers to think outside the box and consider old problems in new ways. In recent years, attention has also been focused on social phenomena and moral behaviors or the study, evaluation, and rehabilitation of offenders, which is one of the most difficult areas in mental health research.

All the benefits of using these tools are not yet known and exploited. The brain sciences are therefore opening up new horizons for cognitive sciences and new practical possibilities, also susceptible to important ethical implications which must also be discussed. How technological innovations are changing neuroscience research must be explored day by day. Researchers in psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and behavioral sciences need insights on the evolution and changes in the use of VR/AR technologies for research purposes. We believe it is interesting to analyze which are the questions, the choices being made and the challenges scientists are facing in this field, with the aim of providing a valuable source of information for future researches and development.


Keywords: virtual reality, augmented reality, neurophysiology, neuropathology, neuroscience, neuropsychology, ecological validity, immersive technology


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