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These Researchers Want to Make MRIs More Comfortable With Virtual Reality

Person undergoing an MRI.

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Getting an MRI scan done can be uncomfortable, especially for children, which sometimes hinders the accuracy of the results.
  • To alleviate the discomfort of getting an MRI scan, researchers developed a virtual reality system to distract the patient.
  • This VR system incorporates the sounds and movements of an MRI into the experience to fully immerse the patient.

Undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan, also known as an MRI, can often be an uncomfortable experience for many patients, especially children. This unease often leads to fidgeting which can ruin test results. Because of this, researchers have long since tried to find ways to improve the experience.

One team of researchers wants to take this optimization to a new level. 

Scientists at King’s College London are developing an interactive virtual reality system (VR) to be used during MRI scans. This system immerses the patient into a VR environment, distracting them from the test. It even integrates key MRI features, like vibrations and sounds from the machine into the VR experience to make it more realistic.

Ideally, this should distract the patient during the procedure but keep them concentrated enough for the MRI to be carried out perfectly. The August research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Although the project is still in its early days, it shows promise—the next steps will be perfecting and testing it on large groups of patients. The researchers are hopeful technology like this could improve the test for children, individuals with cognitive difficulties, and people with claustrophobia or anxiety.

Remaining Calm During an MRI Is Crucial

“Many people describe being inside an MRI scanner and in particular lying down in the narrow and noisy tunnel as being a very strange experience, which for some can induce a great deal of anxiety,” lead researcher Kun Qian, a post-doctoral researcher in the Centre for the Developing Brain at Kings College London, tells Verywell.

“This is exacerbated during the scan itself, as people are also asked to relax and stay as still as possible, but at the same time are always aware that they are still inside this very alien environment," Qian adds.

This discomfort can affect both image quality and the scan's success. Due to anxiety, MRI scans fail frequently. For example, scanning failure rates in children are as high as 50% and 35% between 2 to 5 and 6 to 7 years respectively, according to Qian.

“This results in a great deal of time and resources being lost, and potentially can significantly affect clinical management,” Qian says, with many clinics having to sedate or use anesthesia on the patient. “So our VR system could potentially make a profound difference by not only improving scanning success rates but also by avoiding the need for sedation or anesthesia.”

The creative spark behind this project occurred when researcher Tomoki Arichi gifted Joseph Hajnal, another researcher on Qian’s team, VR goggles for Christmas. 

“Professor Hajnal realized that whilst using the goggles, he was completely unaware of what was going on around him because of the strong immersive experience,” Qian says. “He realized that this could be an exciting way to also address the difficulties with anxiety around having an MRI scan.” 

As a result, the team then went on to develop the new technology.

How Does the VR Technology Work?

This new virtual reality system will be fully immersive and ideally distract the patient from the MRI occurring around them. Here’s how it will work.

The headset is what’s called light-tight, so the patient can't see their surrounding environment and can only see what the VR system is showing them. The projector will immediately go live as soon as the patient is ready, so they are immersed in this virtual experience from the second the scan starts to when it ends.  

Sensations such as the scanner noise, the table movement, and the table vibration are all integrated into the virtual experience. When the scanner vibrates, the VR depicts a construction scene. When the scanner moves or makes a noise, so does the character.

To interact with the virtual environment, the patient uses their eyes. They can navigate just by looking at objects in the virtual world. Plus, the user doesn’t strap a headset onto their head so there should be no problems with motion sickness, according to Qian, which is usually one of the drawbacks of VR.

What This Means For You

MRI's can be stressful. For now, VR technology isn't available for you yet during the exam. But if you're feeling anxious about the experience you can have a friend or family member present and try to control your breathing. Some places even offer the option to listen to music during your test.


The Future of VR in Health Care

“This is a perfect example of what is increasingly being considered by the healthcare sector and regulatory bodies around the world as a critical use case for virtual reality,” Amir Bozorgzadeh, co-founder and CEO of Virtuleap, a health and education VR startup, tells Verywell.

VR is the first digital format in which the user is immersed in an ecologically valid experience that fully tricks the body into believing the experience is real, he explains. 

“It doesn't matter if I know I'm physically in my living room; to the whole body, meaning the autonomic nervous system, the vestibular balance system, and my proprioception, I am in the simulated experience,” Bozorgzadeh says.

That’s why this phenomenon creates a safe environment for medical examinations. On the other hand, according to Bozorgzadeh, there still hasn’t been enough research on the effects of long-form VR. It is, after all, still an emerging technology.

For now, this newly designed VR for MRIs seems to be a step in the right direction.

“In our initial user tests, we were very pleased to find that the system has been tolerated very well, with no headaches or discomfort reported at all,” Qian says. “However, this is something we need to systematically test with large numbers of subjects in the coming months.”

Qian explains that his team would also like to develop more content specifically for vulnerable groups like patients with anxiety—potentially tailoring the virtual environment to them down the line.

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  1. Qian, K., Arichi, T., Price, A. et al. An eye tracking based virtual reality system for use inside magnetic resonance imaging systemsSci Rep 11, 16301 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-95634-y

  2. UC San Siego Health. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).