Graduate Student Uses VR to Erase Kids' Fear of MRIs

Max Orozco has dedicated himself to the study of the brain, working in laboratories throughout California and penning different academic papers on brain development for much of his professional career. But now, Orozco is using his neuroscience background to help reverse people's fear of one of the most daunting procedures in the medical field.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a non-invasive scan that creates detailed images of your body's internal organs and skeletal structures. And it's pretty scary.

Unlike X-rays and ultrasounds, MRI uses a large magnet and radio waves to finely expose what's inside your body. It’s a common procedure for doctors to use for early disease detection and treatment.

But this procedure can be a nightmare for kids. A recent study found that 10 to 37 percent of people who undergo a MRI scan reportedly experience stress, specifically anxiety. And some researchers, including Orozco, believe that this anxiety is more prevalent in children. That might be partly because of the noise of some MRI machines, which can produce sounds up to 120 decibels, according to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. That's 20 decibels short of a firecracker.

A man gives a presentation
A computer generated simulation of an office with a CGI teddy bear dancing

"[MRI] is an intimidating procedure,” Orozco said. "It's loud, it's scary and particularly, with my experience looking at brain development, kids are frightened to do it."

As a result, kids either receive sedation in order to complete the scan, or the scan isn't performed at all and millions of dollars worth of research funding are lost in the process, according to Orozco.

To help stop this problem, the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young graduate student has developed a virtual reality tool that simulates the sights and sounds of a real MRI exam. In this way, kids will know what to expect heading into their MRI appointment, including how much movement is allowed during a scan.

Although mock MRI tools already exist, Orozco's version is unique in its design and small size. Many existing mock MRI tools are fiberglass replicas of an MRI machine, which some hospitals and radiology labs don't have the space to accommodate, according to Orozco. But with Orozco's Virtual Reality MRI Mock Scanner, all you need is space for an office chair and a VR headset.

"My version is smaller. It's kind of grounded in human-centered design — there's a little teddy bear that walks the kids through the experience, rather than a clinician. It's really child-centered," Orozco said.

Two men wearing VR goggles stand side-by-side, smiling

At some point during the mock scan, the MRI machine briefly turns into a large digital camera. This way, kids can understand the essential function of an MRI machine. Also, children receive signals when they move excessively during the scan and can choose their language preferences.

But the kid-friendly narrative and design of the mock scanner was actually inspired by his time at the Academy. "The first iteration that I made was so cold and so clinical ... but it wasn't until the education here that I really came to value storytelling and how important the narrative structure was," Orozco said. "So I think the education here, bridging different disciplines, and bringing art and technology together was really critical to making something that connects to people."

The prototype is just over a year old but has already received massive support.

Orozco and his research team were invited to Oculus Launch Pad 2019 where they received VR education and development to perfect their prototype. The prototype is currently being tested at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Doctors are working with Orozco and his team to analyze how effective the VR MRI Mock Scanner is in reducing children's anxiety before it's officially deployed. Orozco is currently looking for developers and other members to build his team.

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