Science News -- March 8, 2023: The "metaverse" has sparked the interest of the general public as a realm
of boundless potential that has

the power to affect all facets of existence. Until Facebook changed its name to "Meta" in 2021, discussions about the
benefits of fully immersive virtual environments were confined to a small number of tech and Sci-Fi circles. Since then,
the idea of the metaverse has received a lot of interest, and scientists are now beginning to investigate how virtual worlds may be utilized to enhance scientific and medical studies.

What are the main challenges and opportunities presented by the metaverse for managing non-communicable diseases? Associate Professor Javad Koohsari from the School of Knowledge Science at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST), who is also an adjunct researcher at the Faculty of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, as well as Professors Yukari Nagai from JAIST, Tomoki Nakaya from Tohoku University, and Akitomo Yasunaga from Bunka Gakuen University, recently published a paper on this topic in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
The team outlines three potential applications of the metaverse for large-scale non-communicable disease health interventions.

The "built environment," or the man-made surrounds we regularly interact with, has a significant impact on non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, strokes, chronic respiratory disease, malignancies, and mental illness. Constructed environments can have a direct impact on health through acute consequences such pollution or indirectly by influencing sedentary behavior, food, sleep, and physical activity. Consequently, health interventions that improve built environments can be employed to lessen the health burden of non-communicable illnesses.

This is where the metaverse can be of assistance. Experiments conducted in virtual settings within the metaverse can be used to investigate the effectiveness of large-scale interventions before they are implemented, saving time and money. "Within a metaverse, study participants could be randomised to experience different built environment exposures such as high and low density, high and low walkability, or different levels of nature or urban environments,"explains Prof. Koohsari, the lead author of the paper, who is among the top 2% of most influential researchers worldwide across all scientific disciplines in 2021. He further adds, "This article will be of particular interest to experts in public health, urban design, epidemiology, medicine, and environmental sciences, especially those considering using the metaverse for research and intervention purposes."

The article also mentions how health therapies can be carried out within the metaverse itself. For instance, even if a person has little to no access to natural "green" environs in the actual world, the metaverse can nevertheless expose them to them. In this approach, the metaverse may mitigate the detrimental impacts on mental health brought on by crowded, stressful situations.

In the metaverse, virtual homes and workplaces can be completely customized. A button click can also be used to make changes to environments within the metaverse. Thirdly, the metaverse might potentially provide a digital setting where new workplace and built environment designs can be tested in real time.

"A metaverse could allow stakeholders to experience, build, and collaboratively modify the proposed changes to the built environment before these interventions are implemented in the physical world."

The essay emphasizes important limits of the metaverse in imitating the real world, even if it lists numerous ways that the metaverse can revolutionize public health treatments through altering built surroundings. In particular, the metaverse's current condition today makes it possible to test a variety of human behaviors and their interactions with built surroundings. Also, since persons from lower socioeconomic levels have limited access to virtual reality technology, the metaverse's population may not be reflective of society as a whole.

The article also looks at how the metaverse might have a negative impact on public health. For instance, prolonged exposure to virtual environments might have detrimental impacts on one's health due to increased screen time or inactivity, social isolation, and antisocial behavior. The paper concludes by pointing out that an overreliance on AI may cause biases and socioeconomic imbalances to be replicated in the virtual world. In summary, the article notes that excess reliance on artificial intelligence may lead to the replication of real-world biases and social inequalities in the virtual world. In conclusion, Prof. Koohsari remarks, "It is best, sooner rather than later, to face the prospects and challenges that the metaverse can offer to different scientific fields, and in our case, to public health."

WNCtimes by Marjorie Farrington

Citation: Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. "How can the metaverse improve public health?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 February 2023. .

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