Functional neurological disorder (FND) is a common cause of significant disabling symptoms such as seizures, limb weakness or shaking that is poorly understood as it falls in the gaps between physical and mental health. There is no identifiable damage to wiring (‘hardware’) of the nervous system and it is thought to arise due to brain connection or signalling (‘software’) problems, for example when the brain’s predictions don’t match signals received from the body.
We will explore this mismatch using immersive virtual reality (VR) environments and brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. This will allow us to determine if sense of body ownership is different in people with FND, and whether they feel less in control over the movements of an avatar compared to people without FND, and how this might differ in schizophrenia where the brain can misinterpret signals.
To date, FND has been underexplored in clinical research, and available treatments are limited. This study will allow us to explore the processes underlying FND and the degree to which there is a discrepancy between the brain’s expectations and bodily sensory experiences. Next steps will involve determining if VR immersion and BCI may hold potential as future treatments for FND.
Planned research methods and training provided includes: 1. assessment of FND and schizophrenia patients 2. VR application design for clinical and non-clinical applications 3. all aspects of relevant research methods and data analysis.
Objectives by year:
Year 1: Systematic review of agency / body ownership in FND and other clinical populations. Finalise design and VR environments, start recruitment.
Year 2: Run and complete study, secondment with industry partner (Mesmerise)
Year 3: Write up thesis and publications, disseminate results at conferences (e.g. British Neuropsychiatry Association, UK Functional Neurological Symptoms meetings).
Year 4: Further industry secondments / internships. Support for applications for post-doctoral phase. Next steps with funding – fellowships / further collaborative grants with industry sponsor (Mesmerise Global).