In Brief
In a new study, a virtual reality simulation is used to examine how our brains assemble memories. Researchers observed activity in the hippocampus as participants recalled memories from a VR experience.

Memory Research

Researchers are using virtual reality (VR) to better explore how human brains assemble memories and organize them in context. In a new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers put human volunteer subjects into a VR experience and then observed the activity in their hippocampuses. Through this experiment, the researchers were able to show that different parts of the hippocampus are activated in response to different types of memories.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, studied how our brains assemble memories within context of time and space by immersing participants in a VR experience. Afterwards, the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to observe activity in the hippocampus while the subjects recalled their memories of the experience.

Participants try to recall objects from houses in a VR experience. Image Credit:
Participants try to recall objects from houses in a VR experience. Image Credit:

In the VR experience, the subjects “went” into different houses that had different objects in them. They tried to memorize the objects in two separate contexts — which video and which house. This tested both episodic (video) and spatial (house) memory, which each activated different regions of the hippocampus.

Medical VR

This study allowed the researchers to identify a region of the hippocampus that is involved in recalling shared information about contexts (such as virtual objects that were in the same video) and another distinct area that is involved in remembering differences in context. Additionally, the experiment revealed that hippocampus is involved in episodic memories that link time and space, contradicting the previous thinking that the hippocampus codes mostly for spatial memories.

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This study shows just how widely applicable VR technologies can be to physiological and medical research. There are already VR systems designed to help medical students learn in a more realistic environment, and future operating rooms and hospitals could easily be equipped with VR training tech.

Additionally, VR systems could allow for surgeons to better assess and view the operating area before a procedure is performed. The tech could even be further applied as a diagnostic tool to provide a 3-dimensional, immersive look at patients bodies that could reveal aspects of a diagnosis that might have otherwise gone unseen.