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VR may help those with autism

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UK researchers are using VR and brain scans to identify parts of the brain associated with social cues.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Since people with autism struggle to read social cues, such as facial expressions, being able to understand the neurological basis for this may eventually lead to new diagnosis and treatment for the condition. Now, a project funded by the EU Commission, called Becoming Social, is working to map the regions of the brain that are sensitive to social interactions, and how these regions develop as children grow.

The brain networks responsible for our social intuition are still largely a mystery. Exactly when they develop, or even where in the brain they are located is still unknown. It is also not yet clear whether these skills are learned, or if they are present from birth. In order to try and answer some of these questions, Dr Kami Koldewyn, a psychologist at Bangor University, is using functional MRI brain scans to try and identify which neural networks are active when volunteers observe people interacting. However, studying the way the brain processes non-verbal cues during social interactions can be a challenge because researchers need to completely control one side of a conversation to ensure that the test is accurate. To accomplish this, the team turned to researchers at University College London, who are using VR to create realistic social interactions. According to UCL researcher Dr Alexandra Georgescu, ‘We have built virtual people using a commercial VR system combined with our own code that allows us to control our virtual characters. It offers quite a realistic experience of social conversations and allows us to study things like turn-taking and mimicry.’

We have previously seen VR used to help prevent motion sickness and to control robots. Now, by combining VR and brain scans, researchers are able to bring a new level of scientific rigour to social neuroscience, and allow theories that were previously hard to test to be subjected to controlled experiments. Understanding the link between brain development and social ability could open the door to helping those with autism to develop real-world social skills through training exercises. In addition, this research may have commercial applications, by creating AI which can interact more naturally with humans.

This innovation has also been featured in the report ‘The Future of Immersive Content’, which was inspired by recent research conducted by our partner Digital Catapult, the UK’s leading advanced digital technology innovation centre. Download the full report here.

Email: k.koldewyn@bangor.ac.uk

Website: www.bangor.ac.uk/psychology

Contact: k.koldewyn@bangor.ac.uk

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