by Veronique de Turenne
When Nanthia Suthana, PhD ’09 (FEL ’12), was an undergrad at UCLA, she took a year off from school to travel through Europe and try to make sense of the rest of her life. “There I was, a 19-year-old well out of her comfort zone and in a new and strange cultural world,” she says. “As I traveled to other countries, the language barrier added to a profound sense of dislocation. I can still vividly picture myself getting off of a plane and walking around the streets of each new city, trying to remember where I am and figure out where I’m going.”
She was subsisting on an itinerant student’s limited budget and couldn’t afford most diversions that cost money, so Dr. Suthana filled much of her free time with reading. That’s how she came across the famous case of Patient H.M., a man with epilepsy who, in 1953, underwent experimental brain surgery to deal with his severe seizures. The procedure, a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy, successfully controlled the epilepsy, but the patient was left unable to form new memories.
“The case study of Patient H.M. totally fascinated me. Ever since then, I knew that I wanted to pursue neuroscience,” says Dr. Suthana, who returned to UCLA to complete her undergraduate degree and then earn her doctorate and complete a postdoctoral fellowship in neurophysiology. “It put me on the path that I am on to this day.”
That path finds Dr. Suthana — now assistant professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and holder of the Ruth and Raymond H. Stotter Chair in Neurosurgery — occupying a spare and somewhat clinical space on the fourth floor of the Edie & Lew Wasserman Building in UCLA’s Stein Plaza. There, in what is known as the “VR Stadium,” she is working with a volunteer who, like Patient H.M., has epilepsy. He is wearing a black motion-capture bodysuit and cap studded with reflective markers to track his movements, and he has just donned a virtual reality (VR) headset.
With his eyes locked on the images that now surround him, the man is virtually transported from this room to an entirely different location. As he views his new surroundings and moves around the room, electrodes implanted deep in his brain track and, when necessary, adjust his neural activity, all the while sending out a constant stream of data that map the inner workings of the man’s brain.
DR. SUTHANA STANDS AT THE FOREFRONT OF AN EXCITING NEW FIELD OF RESEARCH. By integrating the emerging field of virtual reality with the data from the implanted electrodes, she is a pioneer of research into how the brain creates and encodes memories. “It’s only because of this specific brain implant” — a radical treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy called the Responsive Neurostimulator — “that we can now use virtual reality, combined with motion tracking, to study memory,” Dr. Suthana says. That is because the implant makes visible the electrical activity in a person’s brain, constantly monitoring brainwaves to detect an impending seizure and then sending pulses to re-set the neurons and avert the attack.
Because the epilepsy implants sit in the region of the brain that is associated with memory, Dr. Suthana and her colleagues have been able to take the real-time data produced by the implants several steps further. With the use of VR, they place their study participants in unfamiliar surroundings. As the volunteers explore, memorize and perform tasks in these new spaces, the researchers log and analyze their brain activity. “The idea of combining patients with brain implants, motion tracking and virtual reality memory tasks has never been done before,” she says. The hope is that the resulting data will reveal the mechanisms involved in the making and encoding of memories at a cellular level.
“Without our memories, each of us would be lost in time and cut off from other people,” Dr. Suthana says. “At UCLA, we are the first to blend virtual reality with a surgically implanted prosthesis to reveal what happens inside the brain when we create more naturalistic memories.” The ultimate goal, she says, is to develop therapeutic tools that could restore lost memories to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and other disorders.
In 2015, with help from colleagues in the disciplines of neuroscience, neurosurgery, computer science, bioengineering and physics, Dr. Suthana created the VR Stadium. The tools allow her team to collect data from which they can extrapolate not only how memories are formed, but also the pathways the brain uses to recall information in order to navigate new environments.
“All of our daily memories are visually linked to space — the setting in which they are created,” Dr. Suthana says. “When you forget where you left your keys or parked your car, you automatically try to visualize where and when you last saw them. The same principle holds true for complex tasks, like navigating a grocery store or” — as Dr. Suthana discovered during her undergraduate travels abroad — “learning your way around a new city. We take these basic functions for granted — the ability to remember a friend’s face, your wedding day or spouse’s birthday. When someone loses these memories, it devastates their quality of life.”
Veronique de Turenne is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.