Scientists have created tiny virtual reality glasses for lab mice, with amazing results

Finally, researchers say they’ve found a way for lab rats to easily use virtual reality headsets. This unusual setup has practical applications, because it would make it easier for scientists to study how mice respond to things they typically encounter in the wild, such as predatory birds.

Sending mice into virtual reality is not a new concept. Ideally, virtual reality allows scientists to simulate the natural environments of mice under more controlled conditions. But even today’s most advanced systems are outdated. Mice will be placed on a treadmill while surrounded by computer screens or displays, for example, but these screens cannot cover the entire laboratory, and it usually takes some time for the mice to focus on the virtual reality environment.

Unfortunately, mice don't wear goggles this way.

Unfortunately, mice don’t wear goggles this way.
picture: @Rita

Researchers at Northwestern University say they have now designed a virtual reality architecture that should be more life-like for lab rats, aptly called the iMRSIV (pronounced “immersive”) system. This setup works much like the Oculus Rift and other popular VR headsets, though the rodents aren’t actually wearing mouse-sized lenses. Instead, glasses are attached to the base of the system, and mice are placed close enough to them that they cover the entire field of vision. Mice can also run in place thanks to the treadmill.

In paper published Reporting Friday in the journal Neuron, the team found that mice appeared to engage with the iMRSIV system much faster than in traditional virtual reality settings.

“We went through the same kind of training paradigms that we have done in the past, but the mice with the goggles learned more quickly,” said lead study author Daniel Dombeck. statement from the University. “After the first session, they could already complete the task. They knew where to run and looked to the right places to get the rewards. We think they actually might not need as much training because they can engage with the environment in a more natural way.”

Dombeck and his team also tested whether the glasses could accurately simulate overhead natural threats such as birds, something that was not possible in the past. To do this, they created a projection of an expanding dark disk that would emerge from the top of the goggles. When the mice saw this projection, they tended to either freeze or run faster, responses typically seen in the wild.

Actual iMRSIV system.

Actual iMRSIV system.
picture: Dom Pink/Northwestern University

The researchers then hope to mimic other common events in nature, such as scenarios in which mice chase small potential prey. Although there are still some things they would like to work on, the team feels that their setup can offer a lot of advantages over other systems currently available.

“Traditional VR systems are very complex,” Dombek said. “It’s expensive, and it’s big. It requires a big lab with a lot of space. Plus, if it takes a long time to train a mouse to do a task, it limits the number of experiments you can do. We’re still working on improvements, but our glasses are small.” It’s also relatively cheap and easy to use, and this could make VR technology more accessible to other laboratories.

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