FARMINGTON — Relaxation and other positive emotions induced by a combination of virtual reality and sound waves may help reduce pain and distract hospital patients.

Research done for a senior psychology class at the University of Maine at Farmington revealed significantly increased levels of relaxation as monitored by EEG readings. Using the combination, more positive emotions were induced while decreasing negative ones, said Craig Detheridge, 20, of Andover.

The UMF senior recently presented his project, “Inducing Relaxation via Virtual Reality/Binaural Beats” to the 6th annual Northeast Undergraduate Research and Development Symposium at the University of New England’s Biddeford campus. The conference provides a forum for undergraduate researchers to share their research findings.

He placed third for Best Oral Presentation out of 60 presentations involving 170 students from 39 colleges and universities from across New England.

Detheridge, a business psychology major who plans to graduate from UMF in December, hopes “to use this technology to reduce pain and instill relaxation and distraction in hospital patients, especially children,” he said.

Using a pair of goggles, a little Gorilla tape and more, Detheridge created a homemade headset display featuring a virtual reality tour of a ride down Beaver Creek in Colorado — one that he recorded himself.

The headset was modeled on Oculus Rift, a new gaming headset, he said.

The headset “lets players step inside their favorite game and virtual world,” according to the Oculus Rift website.

Detheridge added a headphone for the faint “whoa, whoa” sound waves, which create binaural beats. 

Technology using sound waves to affect the brain, pain and emotions has been around for a long time, he said.

Discovered in the 1800s, binaural beats or tones are created by playing different frequencies of sounds in each ear at the same time, according to online articles.

Testing eight classmates, Detheridge added the virtual tour, featuring beautiful scenes of water and snow.

“There was a huge increase in relaxation,” he said of his subjects monitored by an EEG machine available in the University’s psychology department.

Moods were also affected. Each person rated their mood before and after the 30-minute session, he said.

Next he hopes to give the process a test within a hospital setting. Detheridge is applying to go on to Boston University for studies in bio-imaging, working with MRIs and cat scans.

There are no known negative consequences, but the next study involves whether there can be any lasting issues from the use, he said.

Diverting a chemotherapy or surgery patient and helping them to relax, even for a little while, is the goal — especially for children, he said.

“Children are are the most confused by why they are in the hospital, why they are feeling bad,” he said. This could “provide a break from the world they are in.”

Detheridge may have been too young to really remember his own childhood illness, but it has prompted a desire to use his talents to give something back.

“I was given a second chance at life with open-heart surgery at age 16 months,” he said. “I want to do something with that second chance.”

He plans to share his research during a campus symposium at UMF in May. Detheridge grew up in New York and transferred to UMF for his junior and senior years, he said.

He also wants to acquire a 3D printer to make a prototype of the homemade headpiece, something he can see potentially being used outside the medical field.

Imagine spending 30-minutes in Bermuda while tanning here, he said.

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