Virtual Reality (VR) is something everyone has at least heard about, if not actually used. It’s an advanced form of human-computer interaction in which 3D computer-generated images are presented to each eye, via a Head Mounted Display (HMD). This creates a sense of depth and being in 3D virtual space. Navigation through the virtual environment is achieved either by keyboard and mouse or by handheld controllers.  If you haven’t ever tried it, I highly recommend it. It’s a bizarre but exhilarating experience. Our generation is so unphased by technology nowadays, simply because we are exposed to it constantly. But VR is not all that commonplace. Many people have never tried it before, and while it is used for entertainment, it doesn’t appear to be as popular as traditional game consoles.

Entertainment is not the only sphere VR is used in. Within the fields of psychology and medicine, VR is a promising new method of assessing a variety of cognitive impairments in a wide range of people. It’s use in neuropsychology has been on the rise in recent years. But what is neuropsychology? It is the science of investigating how brain activity is expressed in behaviour. For example, someone with brain damage to their frontal lobes may have impaired executive function which is expressed in poor planning behaviour. Another example would be an individual with Alzheimer’s Dementia. This is a neurodegenerative disorder, and brain degeneration would result in impairments such as inability to recall long term memories. Brain damage is expressed in impaired memory.

Traditional pen-and-paper assessments usually assess single functions such as verbal memory. This is useful for obtaining a score that can be compared to the general population, to see whether the individual is performing as expected. But is this single function, assessed in isolation, indicative of real world ability? That has been the concern among neuropsychologists. For the individual undergoing assessment, implications for real world function are more important than a score on a test of one single function. If neuropsychological test scores don’t translate into real world ability, then there is an issue.

This is where VR comes in, specifically VR-based neuropsychological assessment. VR has the possibility to recreate physical settings, such as a shop, in a virtual environment. This way, individuals can be tested on their ability to complete functional tasks such as doing the shopping. The benefits over testing in a real shop are that VR is less time-consuming, safer for the individual, and allows for control of confounding influences that might affect test scores. VR allows neuropsychologists to see how people will act in the real world. Based on this, and on the scores from pen-and-paper assessments, accurate judgments about people’s ability to function effectively can be made. Being able to generalise from a lab setting to a real scenario is of utmost importance for both the individual being assessed and their family. VR can provide insights into an impaired individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

However, there is still a long way to go before VR assessment becomes the norm. Issues around familiarity, age, and technological competence can affect how useful VR is when it comes to assessing cognitive impairments. People of an older generation may prefer pen-and-paper tests, and their lack of familiarity with technology may hinder them when engaging with VR. Of course I’m generalising here, and I’m sure that there are plenty of older individuals who would be more than capable. But overall, generational differences may be an issue. If a person isn’t familiar with VR, the assessment may not be accurate, as they’ll be too busy being overwhelmed by the novelty and trying to get used to the controls and headset.

VR is worth developing, both in the field of entertainment and health, as well as other areas such as cognitive stimulation for persons with dementia, temporary distraction from chronic pain, and relaxation. It could even just be used as something new and fun for neuropsychologically impaired individuals to try out, without the looming implication of assessment. There’s a long way to go before it’s implemented in a clinical setting, but if the above issues are taken into account, and people are willing to innovate, progress, and discover, then VR assessment will make its mark in the near future.

Senan Tuohy-Hamill – Features Writer