Scientists Suit Up with Virtual Reality Goggles to Study the Human Body

Illustration by Rachel Sweeney

Published in Insight - November/December 2018 Insight

Looking at a brain slice in virtual reality is like “standing in a forest of neurons” says Megan Wood, a postdoctoral fellow. Wood has taken the lead on adapting virtual reality software in the laboratory of Paul Fuchs, Ph.D., vice-chair for research and professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery.

Fuchs studies the neuroscience of hearing. Wood and other trainees in the lab use the virtual reality system to immerse themselves in the delicate, spiral shell-shaped structure of the cochlea, a part of the ear that converts vibrations from sound into electrical impulses carried by nerves to the brain.

Instead of trying to flatten the curved structure of the cochlea into a 2D image that can be interpreted on a computer screen, virtual reality helps researchers get up close and personal with it. Colors on different cell types can be turned up and down, causing different parts of the specimen to light up around the viewer.

With virtual reality, it’s easier to visualize how the data exist in real-world dimensions, says Wood. Researchers can also navigate through the anatomy with hand-held controls, turn the structure on its side and look at it from angles that can be awkward to capture otherwise, says Wood.

The virtual images are most often made by using confocal microscopy, an imaging technique commonly used in cellular biology research. The technique uses lasers that penetrate to precise depths in tissue samples and scan the tissue one layer at a time. This generates a series of images, typically in bright fluorescent colors.

The software, called syGlass, is currently in the beta testing phase.

“It’s still an evolving product,” says Wood. “I’m glad that we’re getting in on it early, so we can help figure out how it’s best used.”

Read the full Johns Hopkins Medicine news release: Cool Tools for Scientists: Scientists Suit Up with Virtual Reality Goggles to Study the Human Body.