A new study has revealed that virtual reality boosts brain activity that may be crucial for learning, memory and even treating Alzheimer’s, ADHD and depression.


Well, at least in rats. After monitoring the animals' brain activity with tiny electrodes, researchers from the University Of California Los Angeles (UCLA) discovered electrical activity in a region known as the hippocampus differed when the rodents were placed in real-world and virtual reality environments.

(Before you ask: no, the rats weren’t fitted with tiny VR headsets, instead placed on a small moving track surrounded by screens).

The new findings are significant as the hippocampus is a primary driver of learning and memory, including spatial navigation, in the brain.

When rats walk around normally, electrical activity in the hippocampus neurons appears to synchronise, at a rate of eight pulses per second (8Hz).

Pulses at this frequency are generally known as ‘theta waves’, with a stronger theta wave rhythm seeming to improve the brain's ability to learn and retain sensory information. And when placed in a VR environment, the rat’s theta waves became considerably stronger.

"It turns out that amazing things happen when the rat is in virtual reality," said Prof Mayank Mehta from the departments of physics, neurology, and electrical and computer engineering at UCLA.

“We were blown away when we saw this huge effect of VR experience on theta rhythm enhancement.”

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The scientists also found that VR environments altered different electrical rhythms present in different parts of brain neurons.

"That was really mind-blowing," Mehta said. "Two different parts of the neuron are going in their own rhythm."

More interestingly, this new never-before-seen brain rhythm (which the scientists dubbed "eta”) was also strengthened in the virtual reality environment.

All this indicates that scientists may be able to manipulate human brain rhythms in VR – not only to boost learning, but also treat memory-related disorders ranging including ADHD, autism, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and depression.

"This is a new technology that has tremendous potential," Mehta said. "We have entered a new territory."

The study also indicates why virtual reality may encourage these unique brain waves. As Mehta theorises, a big part of it may be down to the very different set of stimuli presented in virtual reality.

For instance, imagine now that you're walking towards a doorway in real life. Your eyes see that the door is getting larger. But how do you know that you’re stepping forward and the door isn’t coming to you?

The answer is that your brain uses information such as acceleration of your head through space, or the shift of balance from one foot to the other – information that may not be present during a virtual reality experience.

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"Our brain is constantly doing this, it's checking all kinds of things," Mehta said, adding that different theta rhythms may represent how brain regions communicate with each other to process this information.

This means, in short, manipulating the sensory information available in VR could drastically impact how your brain works.

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Thomas Ling
Thomas LingDigital editor, BBC Science Focus

Thomas is Digital editor at BBC Science Focus. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology, health and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards. Also working in academia, Thomas has lectured on the topic of journalism to undergraduate and postgraduate students at The University of Sheffield.