VR allows scientists to 'walk through' brains

Scientists from the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Geneva have developed virtual reality (VR) technology that lets them walk through images created by powerful microscopes.

The images captured by the microscopes are rendered by the software into a 3D image that the scientists can immerse themselves in the data and explore it using a VR headset. A hand-held pointer lets them interact with the data slicing, highlighting or selecting.

The technology was developed in response to the huge amount of data that is being generated in labs where cutting-edge microscopes are in use. The Wyss Center uses a custom-built light-sheet microscope at its Campus Biotech in Geneva, Switzerland. There are just two other such super powerful microscopes in the world that can visualise individual neurons.

“The immense data volumes produced by today’s high-performance microscopes are driving the development of new methods to visualise the brain,” explained Dr Stéphane Pages, senior research associate at the University of Geneva. “We have developed this virtual reality system to reconstruct cellular level neuroanatomical data in 3D space. The system provides a practical solution to experience, analyse and quickly understand these exquisite, high-resolution images.”

This new visualisation ability has huge impacts on neural research. According to the researchers, this could prove to be a useful tool to gain a new 3D perspective on the complex mechanical and biological interactions between the human brain and new types of MRI compatible brain probes that can be used to help people overcome nervous system disorders. It could also be used to help surgeons visualise and practice the steps involved in a complex surgery in virtual reality before performing it on a patient.

The Wyss Center’s translational neurotechnology programme has a focus on understanding the mechanical and biological interactions between novel neural implants and the brain. This technology allows scientists to trace the distribution of neural pathways through the brains and even examine the dendritic spines, the micron-sized protrusions that are communication points between neurons.