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VR Helps Research Team Examine Vulnerability to Stress

People react to stress in various ways. A flash of light or sudden loud noise can evoke different degrees of response from people. Any event that results in stress is known as a “stressor”. Human bodies can tackle acute exposure to stressors. However, chronic exposure can lead to depression, anxiety, and other severe problems.

There have been several efforts to discover a way to identify individuals who are likely to develop stress-related disorders, but with no such significant outcomes.

Approaching the Issue With Virtual Reality

Recently, Carmen Sandi and a group of behavioral scientists at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences have devised a virtual reality method that assesses an individual’s susceptibility to psychogenic stressors. This unique approach obtains high – density locomotion information from an individual while they discover two digital environments. The aim is to predict heart-rate variability in highly stressful or threatening situations.

Heart-rate variability has now become a powerful indicator of vulnerability to physiological stress as well as cardiovascular disorders.

Virtual Reality Stress Scenarios

135 people participated in the study, and they faced three separate virtual reality scenarios. The participants explored an empty digital room in the first scenario, beginning from a small red step. The room had dimensions similar to the real one where those people were in. Thus, if the participants touched a digital wall, they would feel it. After a while, the participants returned to the red step. The room would then fade to black, and the second scenario would start.

The researchers measured the heart rates of the participants as they went through each VR scenario, collecting a large body of heart-rate variation data under controlled experimental conditions. Credit: EPFL

In the next scenario, they found themselves on an elevated digital alley some meters above the surface of a virtual city. The participants explored the place for 90 seconds, and then they went back to the red step, as instructed. The step then started to descend faster, and eventually, it reached the surface level. There was another fade, and then came the third scenario.

In the ultimate scenario, they were placed in a dark room. The participants just had a digital flashlight, and they went through a darkened maze corridor, which had several human-like figures in different corners. They then heard three sudden bursts of white noise through their headphones every twenty seconds.

Building a Predictive Model

The bunch of researchers evaluated the participants’ heart rates as they explored the three varied virtual reality scenarios, gathering plenty of heart – rate variation data. Joao Rodrigues, an EPFL postdoc, then examined the locomotor data from the first two VR scenarios and created a model that can predict an individual’s stress response in the final threatening scenario.

The research team tested the model and learned that its predictions can be useful for several kinds of participants. They also said that their model can predict stress vulnerability to another stressful challenge, where the participants underwent a final virtual reality test. There, they had to swiftly do arithmetic exercises and view their scores compared to the rest.

The researchers also confirmed that their model is better than other stress-prediction tools like anxiety questionnaires.

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