Bas Rokers, Karen Schloss June 11 2017

The Virtual Brain Project: Using Immersive Virtual Reality To Enhance Neuroscience Research And Instruction


The Virtual Brain Project is headed by professors Bas Rokers and Karen Schloss at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Other team members include Dr. Chris Racey, Ross Tredinnick, Simon Smith, & Nate Miller. Dr. Rokers is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and a member of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. His work aims to uncover the neural basis of visual perception. Dr. Schloss is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery. Her work investigates how people infer meanings from visual features such as color, which influence the way they evaluate, interpret, and navigate the world.

Interview conducted by Alexis Gambis, Executive Director of Imagine Science Films

Side view of the human brain. The surface of the brain is transparently rendered so that neural pathways and subcortical structures become visible. In the Virtual Brain Project people use virtual reality to navigate through the brain and discover the spatial relationships between these structures and pathways.

1. Explain in a few paragraphs what the Virtual Brain Project is and how you use immersive virtual reality to enhance/educate about neuroscience research

The aim of the Virtual Brain Project is two-fold.

  1. Understand the factors that facilitate effective navigation in novel (virtual reality) environments.
  2. Develop an educational tool for neuroscience instruction. 

Navigating virtual environments

The Virtual Brain Project helps us understand visual perception and navigation in three-dimensional space. Virtual reality allows us to visit places traditionally inaccessible to us, such as the inside of an atom, a far-away galaxy, or the insides of our own brains. However, since these places are inherently unfamiliar to us, there is a propensity to get lost and become disoriented. Through the Virtual Brain Project we are exploring the perceptual factors that allow people to remain oriented and effectively navigate virtual environments.

Our first phase involves testing navigation inside a virtual brain, using a virtual game we have developed, called “BrainWalk”. Participants are asked to navigate through the brain by visiting a sequence of waypoints (orbs) indicated on a separate mini map that appears above the participant’s virtual hand. We are evaluating how coloration of brain elements influences participants' ability to successfully navigate and search within the brain. 

An example of an individual exploring the Virtual Brain in BrainWalk. She uses the Oculus Rift and Touch controllers to navigate the 3D environment.

Education in virtual reality

Virtual reality provides exciting opportunities in neuroscience education. A major problem in traditional anatomy education is how to convey 3D structures and the complex pathways that run throughout the brain. In order to learn this information, instruction typically relies on 2D drawings and dissections of real post-mortem brains. 2D drawings are limited by their fixed view-point and orientation, which makes it difficult to capture key aspects of 3D structure and function. Cadaver dissections are a powerful tool but are extremely high cost, low accessibility, and low reusability. It is also difficult to demonstrate functionality in cadaver specimens.

Immersive Virtual Reality as a neuroanatomy educational tool has the potential to solve these problems. It allows students to actively explore and manipulate 3D structures. It supports interactivity and flexibility, such as displaying functional implications after a brain region is damaged. It can also be continually updated as researchers make new scientific discoveries about how the brain works. By enabling students to explore the brain in a virtual environment, we can shift learning demands from rote memorization to systems involved in navigation and mental map formation.

We are currently developing a teaching paradigm using the virtual brain to evaluate its effectiveness as an educational tool. Participants will learn about different pathways and we will compare learning performance inside VR with traditional textbook approaches in order to refine the teaching procedure.

Although VR is currently expensive and requires dedicated hardware, we ultimately aim to scale the resulting educational tools to more accessible and affordable VR technologies (e.g., mobile phone based solutions such as Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR). Our results may help facilitate VR-based education well beyond neuroscience, extending broadly from astronomy to microbiology.

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Virtual Brain: Auditory Pathways

Partially transparent brain used to illustrate the 3D structure and highlight neuro- anatomy relevant to hearing. This version of the brain illustrates the auditory pathway, showing where information flows along tracts connecting the ear to the spinal chord and thalamus and then to the cortex where the auditory signal is processed

Virtual Brain: Visual Pathways

Partially transparent brain used to illustrate the 3D structure and highlight neuro-anatomy relevant to seeing. This version of the brain illustrates the visual pathway, showing where information flows along tracts connecting the eye to the thalamus and then to the cortex where the visual signal is analyzed in order to guide perception, recognition and action.

Virtual Brain: Ecological Colors

Colors and shading serve as intuitive labels for each region of the brain and assist in navigation. Here we used an ecologically-inspired color scheme, using greener colors for more inferior parts of the brain, and bluer ones for more superior parts to mimic the color of the natural environment (i.e., green grass and blue sky).

BrainWalk: Behind the Scenes Navigation Demonstration

Participants navigate through the virtual brain, aided by environmental color cues. Participants use the Oculus touch controllers to find orbs hidden inside the brain.