Researchers Create Virtual Reality Cognitive Assessment

February 16, 2021
Jill Murphy, Associate Editor

The research team was surprised to find that participants’ working memories were not related to how well they performed the task.

Researchers at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center investigated whether virtual reality (VR) can be used to effectively test a participant’s executive functional load—or how much a person can process to achieve a goal, according to a study published in Computers in Human Behavior Reports.

The researchers adapted the Virtual Reality Functional Capacity Assessment Tool’s “kitchen test,” in which participants plan a trip to the grocery store by comparing ingredients in kitchen cabinets to a list of recipes. An everyday task, such as making a grocery list, should therefore accurately capture participants’ daily working memory and performance.

“Function-led tasks using VR technology allow us to maintain a balance between ecological validity and experimental control,” said Zhengsi Chang, PhD student, in a press release.

As part of the virtual kitchen, 42 healthy adult college students memorized a slew of ingredients from a recipe list. The participants then navigated the kitchen to check for ingredients and tried to remember which ingredients they found. They returned to their recipe list, crossing off all the ingredients they did not need at the store. Once they finished checking their grocery list, participants picked up their wallet and left the virtual kitchen.

The researchers increased the number of ingredients and recipes to be memorized to test their executive functional load, which the participants took longer to complete their grocery lists when they had to memorize more ingredients. This aligns with the researchers’ prediction that participants’ task performance would decrease as functional load increases, which suggests that this VR assessment can effectively test executive functional load, according to the study.

The research team was surprised to find that participants’ working memories were not related to how well they performed the task.

“People might spend the same amount of time on the task, and make the same number of errors, but they could have totally different working memory capacities,” Chang said in a press release.

The researchers found that the participants were switching up their strategies as executive functional load increased, as some participants tried to memorize as many ingredients as possible before looking at the recipe, whereas others frequently switched between rummaging through the kitchen cabinets and examining the recipe list.

“This study indicates that our strategies have a dramatic effect on our capacity. If you enter into a task prepared with a plan, you will get the most out of your brain and see much better performance,” said Daniel Krawczyk, PhD, deputy director of Center for BrainHealth, in a press release.

The participants’ performance reflects their executive function and supports the idea that the researchers’ VR assessment can effectively test executive function load, according to the press release.

The researchers hope to use their VR assessment to help people who suffer from executive function impairments.

“We used VR technology to create an executive function assessment that can be used in neuropsychology to understand how veterans and other clinical populations manage their everyday lives,” Chang said in a press release.

REFERENCE

Center for BrainHealth researchers create virtual reality cognitive assessment. https://brainhealth.utdallas.edu/center-for-brainhealth-researchers-create-virtual-reality-cognitive-assessment/. Published February 3, 2021. Accessed February 11, 2021.