Microsoft’s amazing HoloLens is the world’s first stand-alone headset that lets users see virtual objects and environments as if they existed in the real world. This device’s entertainment potential is practically unlimited, but as a Hackathon team recently demonstrated, it can also be used to rewire a malfunctioning brain.
A Microsoft employee suffering from myoclonus-dystonia—a condition where the misfiring of the brain causes uncontrollable muscle spasms—discovered that she could regain control during a spasm by looking at her partner’s feet rather than her own. And that’s how she got her great idea: Why not use the HoloLens to retrain the brain and get it to act differently? To that end, she recruited the Microsoft Hackathon team to put the idea to the test.
These folks are definitely on the right track. Previous work by neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has shown that it’s possible to retrain the brain by tricking it with illusions. By using mirror images of a hand, he was able to alleviate the agonizing symptoms of phantom limb syndrome in amputees.
The HoloLens is basically doing the same thing by providing an alternate reality for the brain. As the work of Ramachandran and others have shown, there’s a profound connection between what we see and how we expect our bodies to feel and react in those perceived environments. By using the device repeatedly, the brain is provided with new, learned connections. Over time, these new pathways get strengthened.
During the recent Hackathon experiment, participants were equipped with the HoloLens, and trained with both visual and audio cues. As they repeatedly observed normal bodily function, and as they worked to incorporate those movements into their own physicality, the participants were able to forge new connections, which got stronger over time.
This was a fun experiment conducted at the SF Hackathon, but therapists should take notice. These mixed reality devices are tons of fun, but their therapeutic potential is significant.