Scientists Develop VR Goggles for Mice to Explore Their Brain Reactions to Predators

  • Miniature VR Goggles for Mice: Northwestern University researchers develop iMRSIV, small OLED VR goggles, to study how mice form memories in response to threats.
  • Enhanced Immersion: The iMRSIV provides a 180-degree field of view, improving immersion compared to traditional methods, crucial for studying real-time brain activity in response to stimuli.
  • Stationary Goggles on a Treadmill: Goggles, not burdening mice, encircle them on a treadmill. The design aims to enhance the mice’s engagement with the virtual world, a challenge in previous experiments.
  • Real-time Brain Activity Recording: The system enables recording real-time brain activity in mice while they interact with external stimuli, overcoming historical challenges in neuroscience research.
  • Quick Learning Response: Despite challenges, mice quickly adapted to the VR environment, displaying similar brain activation patterns to those freely roaming. They efficiently learned and responded to simulated threats.
  • Potential for Broad Accessibility: The compact and cost-effective design of iMRSIV could make VR technology more accessible to other research labs, offering a practical alternative to cumbersome setups.
VR Goggles for Mice to Probe Brain Reactions to Predators (Image: Dom Pinke/ Northwestern University)
VR Goggles for Mice to Probe Brain Reactions to Predators (Image: Dom Pinke/ Northwestern University)

In a fascinating development, researchers at Northwestern University have taken a creative approach to study how mice perceive threats. Traditionally, scientists have used flat displays to observe brain activity in lab mice. However, recognizing the limitations of this method, the Northwestern team has introduced a groundbreaking technique involving tiny virtual reality (VR) goggles specifically designed to fit over a mouse’s face and body.

This innovative setup aims to provide a more realistic and immersive experience for the mice. Unlike previous methods, the tiny VR goggles enable researchers to simulate overhead threats, such as a hawk swooping down from the sky. By doing so, the team can observe and map the brain activity of mice as they react to these simulated dangers. This novel approach opens up new possibilities for understanding how mice detect and respond to potential threats in their environment.

Researchers have used a unique apparatus called Miniature Rodent Stereo Illumination VR (iMRSIV) to study the behavior of lab mice. Unlike traditional methods where mice were exposed to distant and conventional screens, this new system aims to enhance immersion by using specially designed goggles.

VR Goggles for Mice to Probe Brain Reactions to Predators (Image: Dom Pinke/ Northwestern University)
Image: Dom Pinke/ Northwestern University

Miniature VR Goggles for Mice

The iMRSIV doesn’t sit on the mouse’s head like a typical human VR headset but is strategically placed at the front of a treadmill, encircling the mouse’s entire field of view as it runs in place. John Issa, co-first author of the study, explained, “We designed and built a custom holder for the goggles. The whole optical display — the screens and the lenses — go all the way around the mouse.”

The key improvement lies in the level of immersion provided by this setup, addressing the limitations of conventional screens that fail to offer depth information. Daniel Dombeck, a researcher from Northwestern and coauthor of the study, highlighted the difference, stating, “Now think about putting on VR goggles, like Oculus Rift, that take up your full vision. You don’t see anything but the projected scene, and a different scene is projected into each eye to create depth information. That’s been missing for mice.”

Revolutionizing Animal Behavior Study with iMRSIV VR Goggles

The researchers believe that this innovative system can enable the recording of real-time brain activity in mice while they interact with external stimuli. This has been a significant challenge in the past, and the iMRSIV could revolutionize the study of animal behavior.

During tests, the mice reportedly adapted more quickly to the new VR environment compared to previous setups. The researchers simulated threats, such as birds swooping down, by projecting expanding dark spots at the tops of the displays. Co-first author Dom Pinke emphasized that the mice’s reactions to such threats are not learned behavior but rather imprinted in their brains.

This groundbreaking development opens up new possibilities for studying animal behavior and brain activity in a more immersive and controlled virtual environment. The findings of the study were published in the journal Neuron.

According to Dombeck, training mice to focus on screens while wearing VR goggles is not easy. However, despite this difficulty, the study found that mice immersed in VR exhibited the same brain activity as those moving freely.

The mice quickly learned to complete tasks, such as finding a reward, after just one session, demonstrating the effectiveness of the VR approach, as reported by Dombeck. The researchers used small VR goggles to simulate threats from above, such as an owl or hawk, activating the mice’s natural response to perceived dangers.

Dom Pinke, a research specialist and co-first author, explained that the mice’s reactions were not learned behaviors but rather innate responses wired into their brains. In the face of a perceived threat, the mice either ran faster or froze in place.

The study’s significance lies in the development of compact and affordable VR goggles, making the technology more accessible to other research labs. Dombeck expressed confidence in the potential of this new approach, stating that it could simplify the use of VR in various research settings. Despite ongoing improvements, he highlighted the current goggles as small, cost-effective, and user-friendly, which could facilitate the widespread adoption of VR technology in other research laboratories.

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Source(s): Engadget; Northwestern University; Futurism; The Guardian; Neuron

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