Back in the early-2000s, when New York Medical College (NYMC) Assistant Professor of Physiology, Jonathan Fisher, Ph.D., was still a Ph.D. student studying astrophysics and optics at the University of Pennsylvania, he was struck with the idea of applying engineering principles to learn more about the brain. “I was halfway through my doctorate degree when I thought, why can’t we map the brain the same way we map space?” he explains.
The idea stuck, and today Dr. Fisher “flies” his neuroscience students through 3D neuroimaging data of the human brain in his first-of-its-kind, virtual reality brain exploration software. The immersive brain experience is also shown in most of the major, digital planetariums in the world, using Dr. Fisher’s carefully-mapped brain data, which is projected onto the dome. Viewers can now take a journey through the brain similar to planetarium exhibits that take viewers floating through space.
According to Dr. Fisher, from inception to exhibit—creating this immersive brain teaching tool was a major undertaking. It first required developing immersive ways for visualizing the brain, and then collecting and mapping the brain data which Dr. Fisher and his team of neuroscientists, astrophysicists, and planetarium specialists used to create short films through the Neurodome Project; he then developed tools for taking real brain data and projecting it in large format, or immersive (individual, 3D virtual reality) format. “It took years, working with other organizations to figure this all out,” he says.
In March, Dr. Fisher finally took his immersive neuroscience project to his classroom, where he asked his students to leave their textbooks home. In lieu of textbooks, they used their smartphones and Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers which allowed Dr. Fisher to become their co-pilot, “flying” them through various parts of the brain.
“As a student, it was a challenge to learn neuroscience, studying complex brain structures from flat pictures in textbooks. And I thought, I can do better! So my goal was to provide my students a way to move around – to provide a learning environment somewhere between flat pictures and a real-life brain dissection,” he says. Dr. Fishers says it was one thing to show the general public the mapped brain, but what he was most interested in was using his virtual reality to teach his students in a class at New York Medical College. “These students are the people who really need to understand the intricacies of neuro-anatomy.” Dr. Fisher explains. “I’m a neuroscientist, so I started with the brain, but this can be expanded. In the future we can map the entire body.”