Researchers have developed VR glasses for laboratory mice to simulate a life in freedom – and let them feel what it’s like to be chased by a bird.
No, it’s not April 1st – these compact virtual reality specs really have been custom-built to fit a mouse perfectly.
Dubbed Miniature Rodent Stereo Illumination VR (iMRSIV), the headgear consists of two lenses and two screens, split between both eyes to give the rodents an immersive 3D image.
Like VR for humans, the mice cannot see the outside world and feel as if they are somewhere else.
But unlike the headsets we might wear that wrap around our heads, these sit in front of the mouse’s face.
The researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois said that by simulating a mouse’s natural environment, they would gain a greater understanding of their behavior.
Until now, such efforts had been limited to flat screens that simply surround mice. These screens cannot convey 3D depth, and the mice can also still see parts of the lab peeking through.
Run for your life
Study leader Daniel Dombeck said the glasses help them “engage with the environment in a more natural way”.
Another advantage, researchers said, is that they can simulate aerial threats — like birds of prey.
Researchers projected a dark, expanding disc into the top of the glasses—and the top of the mice’s field of vision.
When they noticed the disk, they either ran faster on the treadmill used during the tests or froze, both of which are very common reactions to overhead threats.
Study co-author John Issa said the team would also like to simulate scenarios where the mouse is the predator.
“We could see brain activity while it’s chasing a fly, for example,” he said. “That activity involves a lot of depth perception and estimating distances. Those are things we can start to capture.”
Overall, the researchers found that the brains of mice wearing glasses were activated in much the same way as free animals.
They also learned faster and were better at performing tasks, such as finding rewards in a simulated maze.
Sir. Dombeck hopes the glasses will open the door to further research, as they are relatively inexpensive and require less complicated lab setups than screen-based alternatives.
They could also help gain new insights into how the human brain adapts and responds to repeated VR exposure.
The peer-reviewed research was published in the journal Neuron.