Enhancing the ecological validity of fMRI memory research using virtual reality
Frontiers in Neuroscience, June 2018
Reggente, Nicco, Essoe, Joey Ka-Yee, Aghajan, Zahra M, Tavakoli, Amir Vala, McGuire, Joseph F, Suthana, Nanthia A, Rissman, Jesse, Essoe, Joey K.-Y., Aghajan, Zahra M., Tavakoli, Amir V., McGuire, Joseph F., Suthana, Nanthia A.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a powerful research tool to understand the neural underpinnings of human memory. However, as memory is known to be context-dependent, differences in contexts between naturalistic settings and the MRI scanner environment may potentially confound neuroimaging findings. Virtual reality (VR) provides a unique opportunity to mitigate this issue by allowing memories to be formed and/or retrieved within immersive, navigable, visuospatial contexts. This can enhance the ecological validity of task paradigms, while still ensuring that researchers maintain experimental control over critical aspects of the learning and testing experience. This mini-review surveys the growing body of fMRI studies that have incorporated VR to address critical questions about human memory. These studies have adopted a variety of approaches, including presenting research participants with VR experiences in the scanner, asking participants to retrieve information that they had previously acquired in a VR environment, or identifying neural correlates of behavioral metrics obtained through VR-based tasks performed outside the scanner. Although most such studies to date have focused on spatial or navigational memory, we also discuss the promise of VR in aiding other areas of memory research and facilitating research into clinical disorders.
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