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Andrew Huberman in his lab

Stanford “risk-taker” uses virtual reality to study glaucoma treatment, fear

Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman is studying the effectiveness of virtual reality as a tool for preserving sight for glaucoma patients.

It’s not surprising to see Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, PhD, described as a “risk-taker,” as he is in a new article in STAT.

His research on glaucoma — testing virtual reality as a way to preserve or even restore vision for patients with this disease — is a relatively early foray into an experimental treatment. And for his work studying the physiology of anxiety and fear, he swam with great white sharks — outside of a cage — in order to collect virtual reality footage.

The risks are part of Huberman’s overarching plan to try to make a lasting contribution, he said in the article:

'When the curtain goes down for me, I don’t want to look back on my career and say: ‘Oh, we did all this nice work in mice,’ Huberman told STAT in a recent interview in his lab at Stanford. 'I decided about six years ago that, unless I made a deliberate attempt to create a tool to cure blindness, a deliberate attempt to alleviate pathologic anxiety, it wasn’t going to happen the way it could happen.'

Huberman’s glaucoma clinical trial builds on his lab's study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2016. Though the disease damages neurons that relay information from the eye to the brain, his experiment found that some of the neurons grew back — and vision improved — for visually impaired mice who were treated with gene therapy and visual stimulation.

Now, Huberman’s team is testing an element of this approach on people. So far, two glaucoma patients are enrolled; the goal is 200.

Huberman acknowledges potential weaknesses with the work; however, the president and CEO of the Glaucoma Research Foundation, a funder of Huberman’s research, praised the speed with which the experimental treatment moved from mice to people:

The idea of testing early and then refining is much more appealing to me than people who are a little more afraid to take a risk,” Thomas Brunner said. Huberman, he said, is “a risk-taker, which is something I admire."

That risk-taking propensity is apparent in Huberman’s other research, on anxiety. He uses virtual reality footage to evoke fear in volunteers, in order to better understand the emotion and find ways to help people overcome it.

That’s where the swim with sharks comes in. With help, Huberman also has compiled footage of a claustrophobic elevator experience, a 250-foot climb up a tree, and an attack by a 120-pound pitbull.

As STAT writer Rebecca Robbins explained:

He’s not so interested in people who are naturally comfortable in extreme or stressful scenarios. His real interest, he said, is in someone like himself — 'the person who’s not comfortable doing it but learns how to be. That’s information you can transfer.'

Photo courtesy of STAT

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