Hiking in a Wheelchair with Ocean Views and Improving Memory & Eye Tracking Simultaneously

Posted on March 13, 2024

A woman who uses a wheelchair hikes up a steep hill just off the PCH with views of the Pacific Ocean behind her twice a week. She regularly talks about “all of the animals she sees” to a Banner House caregiver that supports her. While enjoying the hike and animals, she is building memory skills as she is challenged to remember to pass specific items to fellow hikers as she hikes past them.

She is wearing a virtual reality headset that enables her to “go hiking”, but her brain does not process the hike any differently than it does the “real world” (according to neuroscience).

Three days a week in the Cottage at Banner House, four undergraduate CSUCI Health Science students, Rasmey Kao, Vaishnavi Ramprasad, and Jaylyn Aragon, Savanna Monson, along with 14 brain injury survivors (names not revealed for confidentiality) are testing the novel effects of virtual reality on memory and eye tracking. The virtual reality scenarios were inspired by 12 brain injury survivors served by the Brain Injury Center and community members. The scenarios were originally created by an undergraduate CSUCI Computer Science, Sky Hampton; they have been updated and improved by Computer Science students, Nathanael Paulus and Ben Michael. Scenarios are available in English and Spanish, translated by Jaylyn Aragon. In focus groups with brain injury survivors and community members, CSUCI professors Kristen Linton (also President of the Board at BIC & Associate Professor in Health Science), Bahareh Abbasi (Assistant Professor of Mechatronics), and Melissa Gutierrez-Jimenez (Lecturer in Health Science) learned that survivors would like scenarios that help them with memory, eye tracking, and mobility. They also wanted a scenario that included something they would enjoy, such as hiking, biking, or going to the beach.

Did you know that neuroscientists believe that our brains “process” virtual worlds the same as the real world? Our bodies think we are there- wherever the virtual reality scene takes us (Bostrom, 2003; Tegmark, 2017). This concept is similar to that of dreams. When you have a stressful dream, you wake up drenched in sweat because your brain and body thought you were living that dream. The fact that our minds do not decipher the difference between the virtual and the real world could help in rehabilitative recovery from a brain injury. When we put on a virtual reality headset and enter a virtual world, we feel as though we are the person living in that scenario. This changes our self-efficacy and confidence to try different things that we might not try in the real world. Research has found that people with brain injuries have improved physical abilities after conducting virtual reality, like results after traditional therapies (Cox et al., 2010; Sessoms et al., 2015). In theory, virtual reality could be more beneficial than traditional therapies because the person may feel freer or more confident to try new things. Additionally, virtual reality could address accessibility issues with rehabilitation and bring rehabilitation to people’s homes at a low cost as technology costs decrease.

This project now has data on 14 participants; the data gathered on the memory scenario has shown that 60% of those who experienced virtual reality have improved on an objective test of memory, while none of those in a control group who participated in a memory card game in person improved on memory. Data gathered on the eye tracking scenario shows that all except one participant improved their eye tracking with each time they completed VR.

The current virtual reality scenarios designed to improve memory and eye tracking are being tested. The scenario includes putting on a headset that covers participants’ eyes and ears so the participants can immerse themselves in the scenario. The experience takes about 20 minutes and is completed twice a week. Participants are randomized to the virtual reality group and control group. Those in the control group receive an alternative memory card game intervention before receiving virtual reality. If you would like to participate in this project, please email Kristen Linton at kristen.linton@csuci.edu. The program will be offered at the Cottage at Banner House Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons.