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fMRI Research on Virtual Reality Analgesia

Webpage text copyrighted by Hunter Hoffman, U.W. HITLab, and Affiliate Faculty at U.W. Radiology and Psychology.

The U.W Radiology Digital Imaging Science Centers’ wide field of view magnet-friendly virtual reality image delivery system makes it possible for volunteers and patients to have the illusion of going into virtual reality during fMRI brain scans.

Image by Duff Hendrickson, U.W., Copyright Hunter Hoffman, U.W.

Graphic above shows a woman in virtual reality during an fMRI brain scan, looking into a custom magnet-friendly virtual reality goggles. VR images from projectors in another room are carried to the participant in the form of light (photons, no electrons) via optic fiber image guides. The participant has the illusion of going inside the virtual world, allowing researchers to measure what happens her brain when she reports reductions in pain during VR.

Image by Duff Hendrickson, U.W., copyright Hunter Hoffman, U.W.  (Above graphic shows the same woman looking into magnet-friendly virtual reality goggles (shown in black) during an fMRI scan during research exploring the neural mechanism of VR analgesia. The white cage-like structure around the woman’s head shows fMRI receiver coils used by the fMRI brain scanner to collect the information about changing patterns of brain activity.

Image by Todd Richards and Aric Bills, U.W., copyright Hunter Hoffman, U.W.

Healthy volunteers receiving brief pain stimuli during fMRI brain scans showed large increases in activity in brain regions known to be involved in processing pain (see left image above, "No VR"). In contrast, the same volunteers reported large reductions in pain, and fMRI showed large reductions in pain related brain activity when participants went into virtual reality (see right image above "VR"). 

Hoffman, Richards, Coda, Bills, Blough, Richards, and Sharar (June, 2004, NeuroReport) search for ``brain pain'' to see a brief NSF funded science news story including a video clip interview of a young burn patient interviewed.

click here to see additional pictures of Hunter and Todd.

Using the same fiberoptic technology in clinical practice at Harborview Burn Center: Water-Friendly Virtual Reality.

Hunter Hoffman designed and Jeff Magula built a similar fiberoptic VR helmet for distracting burn patients who are in the challenging environment of sitting in a tub of water (with optical engineering advice from HITLab research professor Eric Seibel). The custom fiberoptic VR helmet carries light (not electrons) to the patients eyes (sister of the magnet-friendly helmet described earlier).

Hoffman, Dave Patterson from Harborview Burn Center and colleagues are exploring the use of VR for pain control (distraction) during wound care/bandage changes in a scrubtank at Harborview Burn Center.

See Hoffman, Patterson, Magula et al., (2004).


Photo and copyright by Hunter Hoffman, U.W

A burn patient in virtual reality, wearing fiberoptic VR helmet to lure the "spotlight'' of his attention into the virtual world and away from his pain during wound care.

(above). A burn patient in virtual reality, wearing fiberoptic VR helmet. Photo by Anne Schmidt, Copyright Hunter Hoffman, U.W.

A snapshot of SnowWorld (above), developed at the University of Washington. Image by Stephen Dagadakis, U.W., Copyright Hunter Hoffman, U.W. 

SnowWorld is the first immersive virtual world custom designed to reduce burn patients excessive pain during wound care. Burn patients often report that wound care reminds them of their original injury (e.g., fire). The cold snowy imagery from SnowWorld is designed to help ``put out the fire'' of their burn wounds during wound care, but the effectiveness of SnowWorld for reducing pain is likely because ``going inside'' a virtual world is uniquely attention grabbing.

A new version of SnowWorld called "SuperSnowWorld" is being jointly created by the U.W. (in collaboration with Worldbuilder Ari Hollander from, and the William Randolf Hearst Burn Center in New York.  SuperSnowWorld will be even more attention grabbing, and will be designed to hold patients attention for longer durations.  SnowWorld has been made available to several burn centers free of charge (thanks to Paul Allen).  Similarly, SuperSnowWorld will also be made available to other eligible burn centers and hospitals for adjunctive pain control, free of charge (thanks to William Randolf Heart Burn Center and Paul Allen).  Contact Hunter Hoffman for more info about how to get SnowWorld for treating pain during medical procedures.  Check back in early 2006 to find out more about SuperSnowWorld.


Hunter Hoffman <hunthoff9 at>