Scientists across the United States are adopting computer-generated imaging and virtual reality (VR) techniques from the motion picture and game industries to advance neuroscience research.
Two projects presented by the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and by the University of Utah in 2017 Annual Congress of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC gave the audience an overview of the implications of virtual reality in brain science.
Combination of visualization and virtual reality software for virtual dissections
The first project demonstrated the work of a team of researchers from USC Institute of Neuroimaging and Computing Mark and Mary Stevens, who developed software that allows scientists to visualize the human brain in 3D and perform virtual dissections.
Recent discoveries give scientists and researchers the tools to visualize neurons and brain structures in great detail.
âThe brain is naturally in 3D and we measure it in 3D with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), but we’ve always been forced to look at it through 2D flat screens, which is inherently limited,â said the professor Tyler ard, neuroscientist at Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute. âWe wanted to see if we could use recent advances in virtual reality to be able to visualize and interact with MRI data in their natural 3D state, and explore the benefits that would provide. “
Ard and his colleagues used computer rendering techniques to transfer large amounts of data into images. The team has created software that facilitates the rapid import of data and intends to make the code freely accessible to other researchers.
The team combined visualization software with new virtual reality techniques to allow neuroscientists to take a virtual look at the human brain.
One of the most immediate implications of this research will be in education, Ard said.
âMuch of the way my generation of neuroscientists learned neuroanatomy was through teachers in front of a classroom, going through ‘slices’ and 2D figures, and repeating over and over,’ Now imagine this in 3D. âArd said. âThis non-intuitive learning strategy often does not leave students with a concrete understanding of the structure of the brain. “
This research comes at a crucial time in the field of neuroimaging. With the growing amount of information and concepts that students need to understand, it is imperative that researchers look for ways to make learning easier and faster for students, Ard said.
âAs an example of the growth of the field, MRIs are now able to go beyond simple brain structure and also examine functional interactions, as well as anatomical ‘wiring patterns’ of the brain,â Ard said. âVirtual Reality Neuroimaging (NIVR) allows all of these types of information to be examined through a medium that removes the conceptual barrier of ‘now imagine what this really looks like’. “
The researchers plan to publish their program, NIVR, next year.
Using VR to trace neurons
The second project demonstrated the work of a team of researchers from the University of Utah, who developed a way to use virtual reality to trace neurons.
There are 50,000 neurons with almost 6,000 connections to neighboring neurons in just one cubic millimeter of human brain tissue.
Traditional neural tracing techniques involve a scientist looking at 2D computer images and constantly spinning them to see what is behind the branches of the neurons.
The new method allows researchers to create and sort 3D images of neural pathways. Scientists can use headsets and portable controllers to rotate and look behind neurons.
“In most labs, this process is done manually and is a fairly long bottleneck in the overall pipeline of getting the scanned tissues to the final structural analysis of interest to scientists,” said will inaugurate, a graduate student research assistant in Valerio pascucci University of Utah laboratory, which demonstrated the program. âA tool that can shorten that time and help them understand their data faster helps a lot. “
To test and compare the program, the team of four neuroscientists mapped images of neurons using a conventional desktop computer and the new virtual reality technique. The new method was found to be 1.7 times faster than the traditional technique and just as effective.
The team plans to test their virtual reality tool in more labs and make adjustments based on feedback, Usher said.
Over the next few months, the researchers plan to make their virtual reality tool accessible to other members in their field.
âFor that, we plan to deploy it on Steam, which makes it a convenient VR program distribution platform, and we also plan to put the code on Github,â Usher said.
The team plans to launch the platform for commercial VR devices next month or January 2018 at the latest.