Building a 3D Model of the Brain – In the Brain of A Health Professional Student

New Technology for Educators of Medical and other Health Professionals

by Bradley Tanner, MD

Health professional trainees start their training with a limited understanding of neurobiology and over time must develop a mental map of the brain’s uniquely complex structures and its network of neural pathways. They must learn the underlying neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and neuropathophysiology of the brain to establish a core framework upon which they build the science of medical assessment and treatment of brain-related disorders.

Students need to develop an internalized, spatially relevant 3D map of brain structures and their connections. Poor 3D comprehension can lead to errors, misunderstanding, or doubt that a scientific basis of a brain-based disorder (e.g., addiction) exists.

The brain is a unique creation and far more challenging to understand than the heart, kidney, skin, and other organs. Unfortunately, its complex interconnecting structures and interactions have no close similarity to common, everyday experiences or models (e.g., pumps, filters, tubes, rubber bands). Cutting open a brain (in reality or radiologically) reveals globs of gray and white and does not disclose its complexity or vast potential.

Currently, students use 2D diagrams, dissections, radiological scans, textual descriptions, 3D visualizations [represented on a 2D screen], glossaries, and slides to visualize brain neuroanatomy. Three-dimensional (3D) neuroanatomic renders delivered on a 2D screen can be partially successful in providing spatial relationship abilities compared to standard 2D objects, but these tools still do not reach the full potential of technology to enhance spatial skills and develop 3D maps. Learners need a powerful tool to visualize the brain and time-efficiently build an internal model of the brain.

The solution is the latest generation of Virtual Reality headsets. Virtual reality training engages the learner in environments not feasible in the real world, such as immersion inside body systems used in surgery training.

Oculus Rift™ VR (owned by Facebook) has renewed enthusiasm for consumer VR technology. Oculus takes advantage of Moore’s law (enhanced computer power and decreasing component size) alongside improvements in high-resolution small screens utilized in the latest generation of iOS and Android smartphones. The 3D stereoscopic VR world of today’s headsets responds promptly to head movements, fills the entire field of vision, and smoothly generates images that create a convincing alternate reality where the user can look up, down, and behind them. These headsets allow a near perfect representation of reality regarding short visual lag and a full field of view. The realism that is possible with the device evokes “real world” responses (excitement, fear, a sense of awe and wonder) that one does not see when folks watch a video or 3D images displayed on a 2D screen.

Headset VR technology has already been used to explore pain control, surgical repair of a hernia, and similarly complicated objects for engineering training. It is time to apply the potential of immersive headset-based VR technology to the task of understanding brain anatomy and neural connections.

Bradley Tanner, MD is the founder and President of Clinical Tools Inc., a physician certified in psychiatry and obesity medicine, a frequent presenter on the topic of health professional education and training, and a reviewer of NIH grant applications. His typical topics include VR technology, serious games, obesity, addictions and SBIR entrepreneurship. Webmasters and other article publishers are at this moment given reproduction permission as long as this article in its entirety, author’s information, and any links remain intact. Copyright 2017 by Bradley Tanner, MD. For additional content see

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