Mixed reality gives neuroanatomy lessons a boost

With its unique hemispheres and intricate connections, the brain is one of the most exceptional, yet complex organs in the human body. The intricate structure has posed a unique challenge for generations of students looking to understand and ultimately master how its many parts fit, and work, together.

But this fall — thanks to Microsoft HoloLens and mixed reality technology — UBC students will get to visualize the brain’s 3D structure in a way they never have before.

“The first time I put on the HoloLens, I was blown away by what I saw,” said Parker Holman, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at UBC. “To be able to walk around and fully explore a detailed hologram of the brain from every angle is an experience that you can’t quite put into words.”

Left to right: Claudia Krebs, Parker Holman and Tamara Bodnar explore a hologram of the brain using Microsoft’s HoloLens devices. Image credit: Microsoft

UBC has teamed up with a group of interns and developers at the Microsoft Garage in Vancouver to develop a new app for HoloLens, the world’s first fully self-contained holographic computer. The new app, known as the Holographic Brain Project, will serve as an interactive teaching tool to guide students through a virtual exploration of the brain — highlighting, isolating, expanding, and rotating its many structures.

“There’s no denying that the human brain is extremely complicated, and that makes neuroanatomy difficulty to learn and teach,” said Dr. Claudia Krebs, a professor of anatomy in UBC’s faculty of medicine. “We’re very excited to be introducing the world of mixed reality into the classroom.”

Holman and Krebs worked together with postdoctoral fellow Tamara Bodnar to help inform the development of the new Holographic Brain Project application at Microsoft. They believe the new technology could be a game changer for neuroanatomy instruction at the university.

With advances in visualization tools and applications, like the Holographic Brain Project — which allows for the overlay of two-dimensional MRI scans on corresponding sections of the brain — learners are given an opportunity to dive deeper into neuroanatomy than ever before.

“As a young student studying neuroanatomy, I only had two-dimensional images in textbooks,” recalls Bodnar. “It was difficult to get a true understanding of the spatial relationships that existed.”

The Holographic Brain Project, currently a proof-of concept application, was custom-designed and developed by a small team of Canadian university students, including one UBC student, Kevin Jacyna, as part of a four-month internship with the Microsoft Garage.

Last fall, UBC received 10 HoloLens devices, donated by Microsoft.

“It’s incredible to be a part of building an application that will actually benefit my home university,” says Jacyna, who is entering his third year at the Sauder School of Business and plans to continue working with Krebs on the application over time.

In the coming weeks, Krebs, Holman and Bodnar will undertake a research study to assess the educational value of the Holographic Brain Project in neuroanatomy education. The application will be used in conjunction with the many existing educational resources at UBC to help make neuroanatomy more approachable.

“Microsoft’s HoloLens is another great tool for our teaching toolkit,” said Krebs, who has been a staunch advocate of adopting new technologies and video to enhance the learning experience for her students.

For Dr. Roger Wong, executive associate dean, education with UBC’s faculty of medicine, exploring ways to enhance the student learning experience is a priority.

“The Faculty of Medicine has a long-history of embracing innovative teaching practices, including using state-of-the-art technology to enhance our students’ learning experience,” says Dr. Wong. “We see this new tool as an exciting step forward into the future of learning and education.”

According to Gail Murphy, vice-president, research and innovation at UBC, the faculty of medicine’s Holographic Brain Project represents the first of many HoloLens applications that will enhance education and research underway at the university. Last fall, UBC received 10 Microsoft HoloLens devices, donated by Microsoft.

“UBC is a growing innovation hub and we’re eager to explore how new partnerships and technology can help us continue to advance and transform our education and research space and methods,” said Murphy.