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Virtual reality may help treat autism, Parkinson’s

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Playing games in virtual reality (VR) may help treat people with neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, a study has claimed. The technology, described in the journal Scientific Reports, could help the patients shift their perceptions of time, which their conditions lead them to perceive differently.

“The ability to estimate the passage of time with precision is fundamental to our ability to interact with the world. For some individuals, however, the internal clock is maladjusted, causing timing deficiencies that affect perception and action,” said Seamas Weech, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo in Canada, in a statement.

The study will help researchers to understand how these deficiencies might be acquired, and how to recalibrate time perception in the brain. It involved 18 females and 13 males with normal vision and no sensory, musculoskeletal or neurological disorders. The researchers used a virtual reality game, Robo Recall, to create a natural setting in which to encourage re-calibration of time perception.

The researchers coupled the speed and duration of visual events to the participant’s body movements. They measured participants’ time perception abilities before and after they were exposed to the dynamic VR task. Some participants also completed non-VR time-perception tasks, such as throwing a ball, to use as a control comparison.

The team measured the actual and perceived durations of a moving probe in the time perception tasks. The researchers found that the virtual reality manipulation was associated with significant reductions in the participants’ estimates of time, by around 15 per cent.

“This study adds valuable proof that the perception of time is flexible, and that VR offers a potentially valuable tool for recalibrating time in the brain,” said Weech, adding, “It offers a compelling application for rehabilitation initiatives that focus on how time perception breaks down in certain populations.”

Weech said that while the effects were strong during the current study, more research is needed to find out how long the effects last, and whether these signals are observable in the brain. “For developing clinical applications, we need to know whether these effects are stable for minutes, days, or weeks afterward. A longitudinal study would provide the answer to this question,” he said.

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