Virtual reality (VR) can be used to modify patients’ experiences of pain. However, the current understanding of what kind of VR content is the best for pain alleviation and the neurobiological mechanisms underlying VR analgesia remain unclear.
To address this, a research team from the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences utilized behavioral measurements and electroencephalography (EEG) techniques to investigate the analgesic effects of different VR scenes on contact heat stimulation and the associated neural mechanisms.
The study was published in British Journal of Anaesthesia on Oct 3.
The study first compared differences in subjective pain ratings and neural responses among healthy participants under three different conditions: Virtual Reality (VR), 2D (watching videos identical to VR content on a computer screen), and Control (no additional audiovisual inputs) after receiving a series of pulsed heat pain stimuli. The results indicated that compared to the Control and 2D conditions, the use of VR significantly reduced individuals' subjective pain intensity and pain unpleasantness while promoting the maintenance of positive emotions and reducing negative emotions. Additionally, VR also reduced the amplitude of the P2 response elicited by painful stimuli, and the P2 amplitude showed a significant positive correlation with subjective pain intensity.
Subsequently, the study further differentiated two VR scenarios: distraction and mindfulness. The researchers compared their differences in modulating brain neural oscillations. The results revealed that there was no significant difference in subjective pain perception between the two scenarios. However, the EEG data suggested that they involved different neural oscillation mechanisms. Specifically, the distraction scenario could induce a higher sense of immersion in participants, keeping them continuously focused on external audiovisual stimuli while enhancing spontaneous gamma neural oscillation activity in the parietal lobe. In contrast, the mindfulness scenario resulted in lower immersion but enhanced spontaneous alpha neural oscillation activity, suggesting that participants adjusted their internal states to achieve pain relief goals in this scenario.
The above findings indicate that VR can effectively modulate pain and emotions, and VR scenarios based on different strategies involve distinct neural oscillation mechanisms. These findings contribute to a better understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying VR analgesia, aiding in the development of VR scenarios suitable for various pain conditions, promoting the advancement of digital healthcare, and helping more patients return to normal life.
This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Beijing Outstanding Young Scientist Program, the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Leading Project of the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Institute of Psychology Chinese Academy of Sciences
Beijing 100101, China.