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HUMAN+ Research Profile: Dr. Dalila Burin, combining neuroscience with immersive virtual reality

Can activity undertaken by an avatar provide measurable benefits for the physical body? This is the central concern of HUMAN+ Fellow Dr Dalila Burin’s “BStrongBSmart” research project. Focusing on how the evolution of her research area matches the evolution of her career, she discusses how combining cognitive neuroscience with immersive virtual reality (IVR) can help improve bodily and mental functions of healthy people and restore those functions for people with motor disorders.

Burin’s career began exploring the concept of bodily self-identity: the individuals’ experience in relation to their own bodies (the fact that “I have, and I am a body”), therefore studying how the brain represents the body and its movements. She completed a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Turin, which is also her home town. Initially she worked from a basic research perspective, rather than a clinical one, using physiological measurements and multisensory illusions. She still incorporates these complementary experiments into her current neuropsychological approach. “I worked with patients with ischaemia or stroke, where the lesion of one hemisphere has caused an impairment on the other half of the body. And we’d see how they perceive and control their body.”

During her doctoral programme she spent a year at the Experimental Virtual Environment for Neuroscience and Technology (EVENT) laboratory at the Universitat de Barcelona, learning to code and build in virtual reality. This decided the future direction of her career: since then, Burin has always incorporated IVR into her research.

Back in Italy, her next project worked with neurological patients to propose strategies for the rehabilitation of lost motor functions, with a particular focus on balance and lower limb disorders. Once she successfully completed her doctoral studies she obtained a position as Assistant Professor at the Smart-Ageing Research Centre (SARC) in Tohoku University, Japan, working on solutions to postpone ageing-related disorders. “Japan is a super ageing society, it’s actually the oldest country in the world, and Italy is the second,” she explains. “So, it’s particularly important to work on ageing processes.”

There, Burin’s contribution led to important discoveries in the field of cognition. She developed a specific training process: in the real world, the person’s body is completely still, doing nothing, but the virtual body is performing a training regime called high intensity intermittent exercise, where their avatar switches from running to walking. She first found that heart rate changes were consistent with the virtual movements, even though the person was sitting still. She consequently discovered another curious effect, that of cognitive improvement. “We know that exercising is beneficial for certain mental and cognitive functions, but this was the first time we saw comparable effects after virtual training alone. We also found the neural activation in the brain was directly related to certain functions involved in virtual training.” These discoveries pointed to the beneficial impact exercise a virtual body (and not the real one) may have in preserving bodily and mental functions.

During this time she engaged in many international collaborations, including the Horizon 2020 project “My Active and Healthy Ageing,” which brought her to Japan. After five years she applied for the HUMAN+ programme. First of all, Burin emphasises how the EU has become the key hub for STEM research in the last decade, thanks to funding initiatives like the MSCA programme. She now speaks five languages, so she is happy to speak English in Dublin. And Trinity, as one of the oldest universities in Europe, is “a very big international university, where everyone is used to interacting with researchers with an international profile and a very international approach. Which is something I appreciate, of course.”

The most important element for her is that she can conduct her own research. “HUMAN+ is the perfect combination of all these elements, because I could propose my own project, which is a continuation of my previous research line. And of course I have supervisors who support me while I organise my own work.” Her supervisors are Dr Rachel McDonnell from the School of Computer Science and Statistics, and Dr Nicholas Johnson from the School of Creative Arts. “With Rachel the connection is very intuitive, she has very strong background in computer graphics. I know how to work with IVR, but, for example, in terms of coding, I’m a beginner. And Nicholas works quite a lot with creative theatrical representations in the digital domain.”

Her current work explores the protocol she developed, currently under patent registration in Japan. She examines the physiological effects of virtual training on the musculature system. “We recorded the electromyographic activity of the calf muscle to see its physiological activation during the virtual training. Again, even though the person is sitting still we found some interesting peaks of physiological activity.” Burin also manipulates the morphological features of the avatar to make them appear very muscular. This enables her to measure cognitive effects relating to implicit biases of body image. She’s investigating whether embodying a virtual body with morphological features different from your own may influence your attitude towards your own body.

She is now beginning the second year of her HUMAN+ fellowship embarking on collaboration with an industry partner. In summer 2023, she won a competitive grant from the initiative “VRNeuroConnect”, proposed by Seenel Imaging, BIOPAC Systems and WorldViz, to develop equipment combining virtual reality and brain imaging. “They were essentially looking for researchers to propose a meaningful idea to test their equipment. The technology is a Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system, and it’s combined with a virtual reality visor and physiological measures. My plan is to see what happens in the brain during the virtual training.” Burin’s hypothesis is that there are certain areas, specifically the promoter cortex, that are usually activated when we are preparing to move. She is particularly interested in developing equipment for neuroscientists as virtual reality was created as an entertainment tool. Usefully, gamers and companies frequently advance the technical aspects of virtual reality, but not tools for research purposes like immersive visors that are MRI compatible. She looks forward to further developments for the requirements of her and her colleagues.

Burin’s time in HUMAN+ has provided her with opportunities to collaborate in the arts. She is a regular participant at the Trinity Long Room Hub weekly coffee mornings. Following a presentation she gave there last year, she has been meeting regularly with two PhD students: Nemo Castelli, a Jesuit priest from the School of Religion, and Elena Valli from the School of English. They are now developing a concept, combining their backgrounds, around the idea of ‘virtuality.’ “What’s reality? How do we access reality? How can we manipulate reality (as in virtual reality, for example)? Last year I won a Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Science Research Fellow Award, so we’re going to use the prize money to publish a paper about it.”

Burin can typically be found in her office in Stack B. She is surrounded by computer scientists and engineers from whom she can learn a lot about programming, but she also contributes with her skills, especially in neuroscience, supporting students who want to include physiological measurements in their studies. She doesn’t have a specific weekly schedule, instead there are times when she is developing new ideas, which means reading and studying. In other periods she focuses solely on data collection or analysis. “Many people think analysis is very straightforward and boring. Actually, it’s a very creative process, because you really have to think of what you want to do, what you need to do, what you’re allowed to do, and transform numbers in something meaningful.” She also highly values community engagement. She joined the European Researchers’ Night in 2023, has given her own TEDx Talk and won numerous awards for public dissemination. This May she will be a speaker at the global Pint of Science festival.

Reflecting on the values of HUMAN+, she highlights that the most important aspect is establishing your own connection between the sciences and humanities. Indeed, the interdisciplinarity of Burin’s project becomes evident when she discusses creativity. “Virtual reality is like a blank canvas, where you can literally create whatever you want. And it’s a very immersive experience, where you can control every aspect of it. Which is important for audiences, but also, for example, for performers. If you are a dancer, you usually watch and learn. You look at someone else doing choreography and then you repeat yourself. But in virtual reality you can have your own body, and you can learn from it directly.”


- Article written by Dr Sarah Cullen




Human+ is a five-year international, inter- and transdisciplinary fellowship programme that will conduct ground breaking research that addresses human centric approaches to technology development. Supported by the prestigious European Commission (EC) Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Action, Human+ is led by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and ADAPT, the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Digital Content Innovation at Trinity College Dublin. The programme is further supported by unique relationships with HUMAN+ Enterprise Partners who co-fund the fellowships and provide a unique perspective.

The HUMAN+ project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 945447.