Repeated Exposure to Illusory Sense of Body Ownership and Agency Over a Moving Virtual Body Improves Executive Functioning and Increases Prefrontal Cortex Activity in the Elderly

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Abstract

We previously showed that the illusory sense of ownership and agency over a moving body in immersive virtual reality (displayed in a first-person perspective) can trigger subjective and physiological reactions on the real subject’s body and, therefore, an acute improvement of cognitive functions after a single session of high-intensity intermittent exercise performed exclusively by one’s own virtual body, similar to what happens when we actually do physical activity. As well as confirming previous results, here, we aimed at finding in the elderly an increased improvement after a longer virtual training with similar characteristics. Forty-two healthy older subjects (28 females, average age = 71.71 years) completed a parallel-group randomized controlled trial (RCT; UMIN000039843, umin.ac.jp) including an adapted version of the virtual training previously used: while sitting, participants observed the virtual body in a first-person perspective (1PP) or a third-person perspective (3PP) performing 20 min of virtual high-intensity intermittent exercise (vHIE; the avatar switched between fast and slow walking every 2 min). This was repeated twice a week for 6 weeks. During the vHIE, we measured the heart rate and administered questionnaires to evaluate illusory body ownership and agency. Before the beginning of the intervention, immediately after the first session of vHIE, and at the end of the entire intervention, we evaluated the cognitive performance at the Stroop task with online recording of the hemodynamic activity over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. While we confirm previous results regarding the virtual illusion and its physiological effects, we did not find significant cognitive or neural improvement immediately after the first vHIE session. As a novelty, in the 1PP group only, we detected a significant decrease in the response time of the Stroop task in the post-intervention assessment compared to its baseline; coherently, we found an increased activation on left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (lDLPFC) after the entire intervention. While the current results strengthen the impact of the virtual full-body illusion and its physiological consequences on the elderly as well, they might have stronger and more established body representations. Perhaps, a longer and increased exposure to those illusions is necessary to initiate the cascade of events that culminates to an improved cognitive performance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number674326
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Volume15
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021 May 31

Keywords

  • Stroop task
  • dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
  • executive functions
  • functional near-infrared spectroscopy
  • immersive virtual reality
  • sense of agency
  • sense of body ownership
  • virtual intervention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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