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Immersive VR goggles for mice unlock new brain research potential

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Immersive VR goggles for mice unlock new brain research potential

By more faithfully simulating natural environments, the researchers can more accurately and precisely study the neural circuitry that underlies behaviour.

The VR goggles also could help researchers glean new insights into how the human brain adapts and reacts to repeated VR exposure — an area that is currently little understood.

The research was published in the journal Neuron. It marks the first time researchers have used a VR system to simulate an overhead threat.

“So far, labs have been using big computer or projection screens to surround an animal. For humans, this is like watching a TV in your living room. You still see your couch and your walls. There are cues around you, telling you that you aren’t inside the scene. Now think about putting on VR goggles, like Oculus Rift, that take up your full vision,” said Northwestern’s Daniel Dombeck, the study’s senior author. “

By keeping the mouse in place on the treadmill, neurobiologists can use tools to view and map the brain as the mouse traverses a virtual space.

“VR basically reproduces real environments,” Dombeck said.

Using custom-designed lenses and miniature organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, the team created compact goggles.

Called Miniature Rodent Stereo Illumination VR (iMRSIV), the system comprises two lenses and two screens — one for each side of the head to separately illuminate each eye for 3D vision.

This provides each eye with a 180-degree field-of-view that fully immerses the mouse and excludes the surrounding environment.

By mapping the mice’s brains, Dombeck and his team found that the brains of goggle-wearing mice were activated in very similar ways as in freely moving animals.

In side-by-side comparisons, the researchers noticed that goggle-wearing mice engaged with the scene much more quickly than mice with traditional VR systems.

“In the future, we’d like to look at situations where the mouse isn’t prey but is the predator,” Issa said. “We could watch brain activity while it chases a fly, for example. That activity involves a lot of depth perception and estimating distances. Those are things that we can start to capture.”

Because the goggles are relatively inexpensive and require less intensive laboratory setups, Dombeck said they could make neurobiology research more accessible.

–Ajit Weekly News

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