Using a multi-sensory virtual world to investigate chronic breathlessness

About BreathlessVR

Chronic breathlessness is a debilitating condition that profoundly affects quality of life for its sufferers. Affecting 1 in 10 adults, and costing the UK £11 billion per year in healthcare and economic costs, breathlessness is often difficult to treat with many people remaining symptomatic despite maximal medical therapy. For these people, the sensation of breathlessness may not match the physical status of the lungs.

Because perceptions, including those of breathlessness are generated in the brain, a disconnect between the lungs and perception can be explained as a mismatch between the senses. Therapies designed to manipulate and realign these pathways may offer a new route to treat breathlessness.

To achieve this we intend to capitalise on the power of the brain as a predictive machine to shape our perception of reality and create an immersive, multi-sensory virtual world. Virtual reality technology is emerging as a powerful tool within healthcare, where researchers can create a “real-world” environment whilst maintaining carefully controlled experimental parameters.

By carefully manipulating the relationship between the visual world in an exercise setting (for example, cycling along a flat virtual road) from the physical effort (ie. work required to pedal the static bike) and the auditory sensory feedback (ie. the sound of breathing) we propose to examine how the brain weights and combines different sensory inputs to create sensations of breathlessness. In doing so we will disentangle the relationship between the brains expectations from physical effort and identify points of potential therapeutic manipulation to realign the brain with the body.