Why researchers are using rats to work out whether there’s a link between VR and dementia

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Last November I wrote a piece investigating a few examples of video games and related technology that seek to explore, or even treat, neurological conditions. This included virtual reality applications, which prompted a comment from a Eurogamer reader called Pilotmonkey who said that, “I stopped using my PSVR because of reports that it triggered responses akin to dementia in the brain”. Pilotmonkey went on to refer to a study that had been conducted in this area. Curious, I spent the next few months looking into this possibility in detail.

I have something of a vested interest. I own a PSVR myself, which I use fairly regularly. I’ve been playing team shooter Firewall: Zero Hour on and off since its August release, for example, and I still go back to the incomparable experience of Tetris Effect in virtual reality. I’ve never noticed any ill effects after playing any VR game; I don’t even suffer from motion sickness.

Looking into this subject a little, I quickly found myself in complex territory. To begin, we need to take a quick look at the concept of spatial mapping. For many games, the brain needs to operate in virtual reality just as it does in the real world. Take my beloved Firewall, for example. I need to recognise each map as one continuous space, and navigate it as such: to see somewhere in the virtual distance and move there, or move back to a spot I’d previously occupied. Moving in and out of cover, aiming and shooting at enemies, attacking and defending objectives, my brain needs to act as though I’m really there so I can see a space and understand how it works.

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