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Should we be afraid of virtual reality ?

Skinned alive, the epidermis burned to more than 90 %, the burn victims suffer to the point of no longer supporting the care. Bedridden in the hospital, under treatment, they endure, but dread the daily appointment with the nurses, the one that reopens the wounds and that makes you scream : cleaning. “The pain is unbearable,” says US researcher Hunter Hoffman, director of the virtual reality center at Washington University in Seattle, ” even under powerful narcotics””

To save them this punishment, the scientist developed a unique system. Virtual reality headset screwed on the head, patients are immersed in an Arctic universe. Snowman, flakes, white mountains … They navigate at their leisure in a world that makes you forget fire, skin, wounds and above all, pain. They no longer feel the water flowing on their arms, nor the cottons, nor the cautious gestures of the nurses. They don’t need morphine anymore. Perhaps this miracle is related to brain chemistry.

Hunter Hoffman has created fiber-optic virtual reality glasses that allow real-time measurement of brain activity during a pain stimulus. The experience works, whether the patient is in the real world or immersed in virtual reality. “We were able to observe that the brain lit up like a Christmas tree when patients received a short but powerful pain stimulus. When these same patients are immersed in virtual reality, the activity of the part of the brain related to pain is sharply slowed down.”

A chemical messenger, endorphin, is the source of pain stimuli. This messenger acts on the opioid system that responds to pain or feeling well. This small protein, a neuropeptide, is an assembly of amino acids that helps modulate pain, respiratory rate or opiate addiction… Dr. Hoffman’s research does not prove that virtual reality completely puts this chemical messenger to sleep, but that its activity is attenuated.

Hunter Hoffman does not rule out that virtual reality can have an impact on brain chemistry. To prove this, the professor suggests studying the effects of naloxone on the brain. Normally, this chemical compound is used to block the effects of morphine, and only reacts in its presence. If naloxone, given to a patient placed on virtual reality and without morphine, reacted, it would prove that virtual reality has real chemical effects. But the doctor adds that research remains to be conducted, to confirm or not this hypothesis.

Virtual reality, a danger for children ?

The human body does not always react well to this new gadget and the side effects are measured for the moment at the physiological level : headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of balance… Yet, even if they are unpleasant, these sensorimotor disorders are innocuous, as proved Philippe Fuchs*, expert in virtual reality and professor at the Ecole des Mines de Paris. If these phenomena are well known, the effects of virtual reality on the side of the brain remain mysterious. The scarcity of knowledge on the subject worries Philippe Fuchs. “I alerted the national health security agency. If teenagers or even adults spend a lot of time on a game, it can influence the brain, although it remains an open question. I therefore call on neuroscientists to address this issue.”

All users are concerned, especially children under the age of twelve for whom all helmets on sale are strictly not recommended. This warning is a shield for brands. Unable to answer questions about the effects of their helmets on the development of the child, they cover themselves behind a precautionary principle. Asked about their respective helmets, they did not wish to respond to our requests.

When neurons turn off

But since 2009, a team of scientists from the prestigious UCLA University in California has been looking at the effects of virtual reality. Little reported in the media, their discoveries are nevertheless edifying. Professor Mayank Mehta compared the behavior of a rat placed in a real situation and then in a virtual universe. For thirty minutes each time, the rodent showed almost identical behavior. But the in-depth study of his brain, using electrodes placed on his hippocampus (part of the brain that plays a central role in memory and spatial cues), made it possible to establish a new observation. “In virtual reality, the first surprising thing we discovered and published in 2013 is that 60% of neurons in the rat hippocampus become inactive.”

unheard of in the history of neuroscience. By the way, the 40% of active neurons act in a completely disordered way, as if they were lost. To this observation, there is added a significant decrease in the cerebral rhythm, that is to say in the electrical activity of all neurons. Even if this experiment has for the moment been carried out only on animals, the professor is certain that the results of this study are transposable to humans.

If it is possible that virtual reality will eventually leave an indelible trace on the functioning of our neurons, nothing yet indicates any danger. “I don’t think we need to be afraid, but we need to be careful,” says Mehta. Virtual reality should not be considered as improved TELEVISION, it is fundamentally wrong. We should do more studies to understand and know if one can expect long-term consequences. »

Today, the Californian team is developing a new technology, for the moment remained secret, to study the inside of a neuron and have access to chemical and electrical messages released in virtual reality. It could prove that virtual reality has an impact on brain chemistry.

The first results of the team of Professor Mayank Mehta did not provoke the slightest reaction in the industrial world, at a time when brands are investing millions of euros in this technology presented as the future of entertainment. While virtual reality headsets should all find themselves under the French tree at Christmas, research is groping on this subject, in search of funding and ears to listen to it.

By Clémence Guinard and Marie Haynes

* “virtual reality and video game headsets”, Philippe Fuchs, Les Presses des Mines, May 2016.

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