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Development of Virtual Gaming Environments for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Funding Program

BrainsCAN Accelerator Grant: Stimulus
Awarded: $89,854

Additional BrainsCAN Support

Computational Core
Human Cognition & Sensorimotor Core
Imaging Core

Western Faculty, Group or Institution

Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Science

External Collaborator(s)

VPixx Technologies (QC, Canada)


fMRI, novel neuroscience/neuroimaging techniques



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Researchers in neuroscience and psychology typically investigate the human brain using simple images and tasks. Creating more realistic tasks within the constraints of imaging equipment is very challenging and difficult to control. However, new technologies such as video game platforms and 3D projectors are offering an exciting opportunity - to enable researchers to develop immersive, fluid and naturalistic environments, even inside a brain scanner.

The Problem

There have been recent successes (including here at Western) of viewing movies in fMRI as a way of studying a broad range of cognition. When we watch highly engaging movies, our brains show changes in cognitive processes and expectations as events in the movie unfold over time, and in some brain regions those changes are surprisingly consistent among participants.

However, even though there are changes in our brain while watching movies, this is essentially a 'passive' activity - we're just watching something, however enthralling it might be. The exciting part about video game environments is that they require 'active' cognition compared to movies, and they are engaging, immersive and provide a sense of control to the participant.

What we don't yet know is if performing an activity virtually in a video game environment is similar, within the brain, to actually doing that activity in real life. Consider: when you are controlling an avatar to virtually hit a tennis ball, does the brain look the same as when you actually hit a tennis ball yourself?

The Project

The goal of this project is to develop, validate and test three aspects of a 3D video game environment for neuroscience.

First, we will test whether controlling the actions of a virtual avatar in a realistic environment can produce similar activity in the brain as performing those actions in reality. Second, we will test whether presenting a 3D environment yields stronger or different brain activity than a flat 2D environment. Third, we will test whether active video-game play yields stronger activation better than passive replay.

We also hope to develop new methods to analyze data from video games in which events and their timing are partially determined by the participant’s choices and not entirely by the experimenter.

The longer-term goal of the project will be to expand the video game to include a broader range of natural brain functions. Once this approach has been established in typical individuals, it may be used to better understand dysfunction in neurologic disorders.

Western Researchers

Jody Culham
Ingrid Johnsrude
Julio Martinez-Trujillo

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