While the metaverse seems to be imploding in places like (ironically enough) Meta, it seems as though it might be gaining steam from an unexpected user base: mice. Or at the very least, lab mice used for scientific research.
In a new study published Thursday in the journal Cell, neuroscientists from Rockefeller University in New York trained a group of mice how to play VR games in order to study their memory. Not only were the creatures able to learn how to successfully play, but their mad gaming skills might have also revealed the ways in which long-term memory is stored in the brain.
Unfortunately, the mice didn’t play any games popular with other animals like Doom or Pokemon. The study authors instead created a virtual maze that the mice could navigate. The VR maze was not projected onto the screen, but the mouse ran on a styrofoam ball.
As the mice walked through the maze they were presented with different stimuli, such as sounds, smells and sights. Like any good game, this one had multiple endings. The best ending allowed the mouse to access unlimited amounts of sugar water that it could pour from the spout. In the mediocre ending, it could get just a few drops of the sugary water reward. And in the worst ending, it could get a lousy puff of air blown in its face.
“We structured the virtual reality tasks so that they required a lot of engagement from the mouse in order to start the trial, run through the mazes, and get the rewards,” Josue Regalado, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “The more explicit and cognitive the task, the more we’re able to look at how the different brain regions are engaged.”
The stimulus allowed the mice to learn the maze over the course of their attempts. Eventually, they would anticipate either the sugar water reward or the puff of air by running faster towards it or slowing down to brace themselves.
While they were playing, their brains were connected to an advanced imaging device. It uses fiber optic cables and lasers to allow researchers to monitor and interfere with specific areas of the brain.
For example, researchers used lasers on mice to disable their hippocampus while they navigate the maze. This affected both their short and long term memories. The team also tested the anterior thalamus region, and found that mice had a short-term memory but were unable to store long-term information.
However, when the anterior thalamus was stimulated with the lasers, the mice’s ability to commit information to long-term storage was enhanced. Specifically, the mice could better remember the “okay ending” of the game where they only received a few drops of sugar water. The anterior thalamus plays a crucial role in long-term storage and memory formation.
“We’ve identified a circuit in the brain that is important for identifying which memories are important and how they are filtered into longer-term storage,” Andrew Toader, another neuroscientist at Rockefeller and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “As soon as the mice begin learning a task, the thalamus is performing this selection process and choosing which memories will go on to be stabilized in the cortex long-term.”
Think of it like your favorite band. It’s unlikely that you can name every time your favorite band has been on Spotify or Apple Music in the past month. You can tell when and what it made you feel. The experience was more rewarding–and scientists believe that this might play a big role in how the anterior thalamus treats that memory.
“We think something like adrenaline or dopamine might be helping the thalamus to say, ‘okay, this memory is important to me, that’s not as important,'” Priya Rajasethupathy, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller and co-author author of the study, said in a statement. “And we still don’t understand how punctuated or continuous the memory stabilization process is, whether it occurs in one or a few steps or evolves continuously over a lifetime.”
So beyond potential mice-based Twitch channels in the future, the research could lead to technologies or treatments for memory in people one day. To determine if the anterior thalamus also has similar effects on humans’ brains, further research in humans is necessary. The study shows that this region plays an important role in how we recall things over time.
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