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The Genomics Landscape

Virtual Reality Technology in Social and Behavioral Research

NHGRI Director Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D.
Eric Green
By Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Human Genome Research Institute
April 5, 2016

Spring has arrived, bringing a flurry of 'genomicists' to NIH for major talks. As part of the NHGRI seminar series celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Human Genome Project's launch, Drs. Ewan Birney and Bob Cook-Deegan gave talks entitled "Genomes and Big Data: A Personal View" and "Origins of the Human Genome Project: A Political History," respectively. As the second installment of a special Genomics and Health Disparities Lecture Series, Dr. Neil Powe presented a talk entitled "Chronic Kidney Disease: A Window into Understanding Health Disparities." Finally, NIH hosted talks by Dr. Carlos Bustamante about "Models and Data in Biomedicine: What's Real and What's Noise? And Why Should We Care?" as part of NIH's PI Day events, and by Dr. Elaine Mardis about "Translating the Cancer Genome: Transforming Cancer Care" as part of the NIH Director's Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series. Videoarchives of all five talks are available on NHGRI's GenomeTV or the NIH Videocast website

For this issue of The Genomics Landscape, I am delighted to feature the cutting-edge behavioral research capabilities of the Immersive Virtual Testing Area (IVETA) found within our Institute's Intramural Research Program. This month's issue also highlights an educational infographic illustrating the basics of genetics and genomics, a study about DNA sequencing accuracy, and a new collaboration in genomic medicine.

Specifically, April's The Genomics Landscape features stories about:

All the best,


Virtual Reality Technology in Social and Behavioral Research

NHGRI's Intramural Research Program houses unique investigative endeavors of various types. One such enterprise is the Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit, which encompasses the Immersive Virtual Testing Area (IVETA). Founded in 2006, IVETA is an experimental behavioral science research laboratory within the NIH Clinical Center that serves the NHGRI Social and Behavioral Research Branch (SBRB). The focus of IVETA is the development of advanced communications methodologies and technologies for use in behavioral research.

Community Translation, Clinical Translation, Health Disparities, Methods and Measures

IVETA provides expertise, tools, and assistance to investigators who seek to integrate technologically-based behavioral research tools into their studies. The laboratory develops virtual-reality worlds for helping to answer research questions posed by SBRB investigators, and has recently expanded its scope to collaborate with other NIH researchers. IVETA's head is Dr. Susan Persky, who arrived at NHGRI in 2009. The laboratory uses innovative technologies, such as immersive virtual reality, for research projects that aim to advance knowledge at the intersections of genomics, human behavior, and society.

Dr. Susan Persky helps a volunteer using IVETA technology
Dr. Susan Persky helps a volunteer using IVETA technology.

Dr. Persky and her collaborators are exploring how new genomic knowledge influences the interactions between healthcare providers and patients, as well as in other social circumstances. The IVETA technology uses virtual reality to simulate healthcare situations, examining how genomic information affects healthcare communication, relationships between healthcare providers and patients, medical decision-making, and peoples' emotions and behavior.

More specifically, IVETA simulates clinical visits through the use of virtual-reality healthcare providers or patients. The simulations allow researchers to vary elements that they would like to study; for example, health disparities can be investigated by varying the race or ethnicity of the healthcare provider or patient, and the reactions of the test subject (who is in the other role) can be measured. In one study focusing on obesity, IVETA has been used as a behavioral measure for parents by allowing them to pick food for their children from a virtual-reality buffet and then measuring responses. This same approach could also be used to design a simulation for measuring a patient's own food choices.

In another example, a virtual-reality classroom was created to assess attention performance among children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Such a simulation allowed researchers to administer realistic but controlled distractions (e.g., a bus driving by outside or a classmate whispering to another child at pre-determined intervals) while child subjects were being studied. Researchers were also able to determine where in the classroom the child was looking throughout the assessment. Analyses of the data collected through this work are ongoing.

From left to right: virtual doctor, virtual buffet, and virtual patient.
From left to right: Virtual doctor, virtual buffet and virtual patient.

This past year, the IVETA team undertook an initiative to widen the behavioral research tools being made available to investigators. They engaged in a horizon-scanning exercise and also held a series of meetings to discuss potential areas for expansion. In these meetings, they engaged both SBRB stakeholders as well as experts in behavioral science and information technology. Based on this effort, IVETA plans to expand its capacity to allow for other measurements that might complement wearable biosensors (such as those that capture participants' real-time cardiovascular activity). Additionally, the IVETA team is now evaluating the possible addition of automated analyses of facial expressions using webcam technology.

It is exciting to have something as novel as IVETA in NHGRI's Intramural Research Program. There are very few such 'immersive virtual reality' behavioral research laboratories in the world, and none that additionally focus on genomics. For more information about our IVETA program, see

More from The Genomics Landscape

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NIH Researchers Identify Striking Genomic Signature Shared by Five Types of Cancer

Tick Genome Reveals Secrets of a Successful Bloodsucker

Study Shows DNA Sequencing Brings Greater Precision to Childhood Cancer

A New Tool in the Toolbox: New Method Traces Free-Floating DNA Back to Its Source

Creative Minds: Bacteria, Gene Swaps, and Human Cancer

Fearfulness Changes Impact of Genomic Information in Overweight Women

Neanderthal DNA Has Subtle but Significant Impact on Human Traits

Individuals' Medical Histories Predicted by Their Noncoding Genomes

Lyme Disease: Gene Signatures May Catch the Infection Sooner

Investigating How the Genome Works, One Cell at a Time
Genome Advance of the Month

Schizophrenia: Ancient Scrolls, Genomic Sequencing and Synaptic Pruning

Request for Comment

NIH and FDA Request Public Comment on Draft Clinical Trial Template for Phase 2 and 3 IND/IDE Studies

Resource & Funding Opportunities

Gabriella Miller Kids First Pediatric Research Program Solicitation for Samples for Whole Genome Sequencing

NIH Director's Pioneer Award Program

NIH/NHGRI News of Interest

The Big Data Quest to Treat Every Disease

Associate NIH Director for Biomedical Information Resources

Testimony on the FY2017 Budget Request Before the House Committee

Unlocking Life's Code: March 2016 Newsletter

National DNA Day: Improving Genomic Literacy on a National Scale

NIH Leadership Co-Authors a Science Correspondence about the Importance of Basic Research

Blue Ribbon Panel Announced to Help Guide Vice President Biden's National Cancer Moonshot Initiative

Funding News

Redesigned NIH Grants and Funding Site

Clarifications and Consolidated Biosketch Instructions and Format Pages Available for Applications with Due Dates on or After May 25, 2016

Reminder: NIH & AHRQ Grant Application Changes for Due Dates on or After May 25, 2016

Upcoming Twitter Chat

National DNA Day Twitter Chat #DNADay16 - April 25

Upcoming Webcasts

Genomic Medicine IX Meeting: Bedside to Bench - Mind the Gaps - April 19-20

New Videos

Genomes and Big Data: A Personal View - Ewan Birney

Chronic Kidney Disease: A Window into Understanding Health Disparities - Neil Powe

Current Topics in Genome Analysis 2016

Models and Data in Biomedicine: What's Real and What's Noise? And, Why Should We Care? - Carlos Bustamante

Future Directions for Undiagnosed Diseases Research: UDN and Beyond

Origins of the Human Genome Project: A Political History - Bob Cook-Deegan

Translating the Cancer Genome: Transforming Cancer Care - Elaine Mardis 



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Last Updated: April 5, 2016
Posted: August 4, 2008