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Using VR & Neuroeconomics to Find Out What Makes Us Tick

Using Virtual Reality & Neuroeconomics to Find Out What Makes Us Tick

Entering a multi-sensory virtual reality environment that measures reactions such as heart rate and sweat, might be the key to developing more effective preventive healthcare measures for New Zealanders.

Dr Melanie Tomintz, a researcher at the University of Canterbury, has just been awarded a $150,000 explorer grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to build such an environment, and to study the reactions of e-cigarette and tobacco smokers within it.

“A radical shift in thinking needs to be introduced to understand underlying causes of people’s subconscious behaviour,” says Dr Tomintz. Currently, health data is mainly collected by using surveys which can lead to bias and inaccurate representations of people’s actual behaviour, she claims.

Her exploratory study aims to measure people’s behavioural and psychophysiological reactions when exposed to virtual stimuli, such as tobacco, different flavours of e-cigarette liquids, and other conditions within a virtual world.

Dr Tomintz hopes the newly-collected behavioural data will be transformed into knowledge to support the development of innovative and personalised prevention and cessation support, and – in future – for planning healthier environments.

For her research, she’ll have access to an existing virtual lab, with two multisensory VR cage prototypes for multimodal feedback. But additional technology that exposes study participants to external stimuli, such as tobacco smoke and e-liquid flavours, will need to be acquired. Beyond this project, the virtual lab could be used to test people’s reactions to proposed future policies – a useful step before rolling out new treatments and policies, she says.

In another project being backed by the Health Research Council, a different and equally-novel approach will be used to address another pervasive behaviour: excessive ‘screen use’ by teenagers.

Screen use is now the main waking activity of New Zealand youth – or screenagers – and it’s a public health issue, asserts Dr Samantha Marsh from the University of Auckland.

Use of newer mobile devices and social media has been linked with unhappiness, loneliness, depression, risk-taking, isolation, exclusion and suicide. Yet, there are few tools available that effectively reduce screen-time in the long-term, she says.

Now, with her newly-gained explorer grant, Dr Marsh can design and test an intervention aimed at parents, to help them make decisions about reducing their teen’s screen time and to follow through on them.

Using the principles of neuroeconomics, which asserts that decision-making (particularly under risk and uncertainty) initiates in the emotion centre of the brain, Marsh will explore how to target emotion in the decision-making process, as opposed to relying on logic and rationalisation which has failed to address the issue.

Rather than focusing on outcomes (ie. ‘we are doing this to reduce screen time’), this technique influences decision-making by focusing on values, and the beliefs that inspire us. We might deeply value the idea of teens engaging with their environment or family, for example: excessive screen use merely represents a barrier or roadblock to this value,” explains Dr Marsh.

The ‘Start with WHY’ framework she proposes to use, has had success in the corporate world, but in the research environment is a radically different approach, she notes.

‘Different’ is part of the landscape when it comes to the Health Research Council’s explorer grants, says the crown agency’s chief executive, Professor Kath McPherson. The explorer grant scheme seeks to attract and fund transformative research ideas with the potential for major impact on healthcare.

In keeping with the innovative nature of these grants, the process of assessing applications also differs from the Health Research Council’s usual process of seeking external peer review. Instead, applications are short, anonymised, and reviewed by sub-panels within the explorer grant assessing committee, with emphasis placed on the ‘big picture’ and not researcher reputation.

“Our explorer grants aim to support scientists to do work that challenges established wisdom – to really go where no one has gone before and break new ground,” says Professor McPherson. “We know some of these studies will make a real difference to what we know, how we think, and eventually result in better outcomes for New Zealanders.”

A total of 10 explorer grants have today been announced, worth a combined value of $1.5 million. They cover a range of health disciplines and include an idea to use smallpox proteins to treat human inflammation, and the development of an all-new test for diagnosing prostate cancer.

See below for the full list of 2018 HRC explorer grant recipients, and to read lay summaries go to and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Explorer Grants’ and ‘2018’.

2018 Explorer Grant recipients – full list

Dr Chris Baldi, University of Otago, Dunedin

A unique cellular mechanism for diabetic heart disease?

24 months, $150,000

Dr Paul Harris, University of Auckland

Pinpointing prostate cancer: A paradigm shift in diagnosis

24 months, $150,000

Ms Gayl Humphrey, University of Auckland

EngageBOT: Exploring chatbots for supporting patient engagement

24 months, $150,000

Professor Kurt Krause, University of Otago, Dunedin

Using smallpox proteins to treat human inflammation

24 months, $150,000

Dr Samantha Marsh, University of Auckland

'‘This is not an intervention, it’s a movement!’: reducing screen time in teens

24 months, $150,000

Professor Neil McNaughton, University of Otago, Dunedin

Developing and validating a novel site for mobile and unobtrusive EEG recording

24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Anthony Phillips, University of Auckland

Is there a ‘fourth axis’ of vesicular communication?

24 months, $150,000

Dr Melanie Tomintz, University of Canterbury

Towards personalised digital health services for preventable health conditions

24 months, $150,000

Dr Ehsan Vaghefi, University of Auckland

Ocular laser bio-meter, fast and cheap early diagnosis of vision impairment

24 months, $150,000

Dr Paul Young, University of Auckland

A universal scaffold for multivalent vaccine development

24 months, $150,000


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