Lab mice strapped in to mini virtual reality goggles are roaming through digital mazes in the latest breakthrough in neurobiology.
And they have a lot to teach us about how memory works, according to researchers at Northwestern University.
In order to identify the neurons that create memories in the brain, researchers at Northwestern University led by Daniel Dombeck created small VR glasses which were placed on laboratory mice in order to observe how they remembered navigational cues while navigating digital mazes.
“The best instruments for imaging brain activity require large tabletop devices, which cannot be worn on the head of a mouse as it moves through an environment. Dombeck explained to Business Insider that instead of holding the mouse’s body still, they run using a treadmill attached under its limbs. “This allows us to study the brains” Dombeck said.
He added that the movements of the treadmill move the animal through a virtual world displayed in the goggles, complete with twisting mazes and depictions of predators like owls.
“We can use this setup to examine brain activity while navigating,” Dombeck explained. “We are trying to identify the exact neurons in the brain that are forming memories of the mazes, and in those neurons, we are trying to identify which synapses are being modified to form the memories and through what mechanisms those synapses are modified.”
Mouse research with human applications
Answering these questions with mouse brains will eventually help researchers understand how human brains know where we are in the world around us, how we form memories of our experiences and imagine solutions to our problems, and, ultimately, how our memories degrade due to neurodegenerative diseases.
The virtual environments enable researchers to use the most advanced recording instruments to study these questions. In future studies, mice will be able to wear smaller goggles and navigate virtual mazes on the ground.
In early studies, the researchers presented mice with simple mazes that were long halls and had a hidden reward along the path. They added an looming stimulus like a predator stalking the mice in the “sky”.
“This stimulation in real environments causes mice to freeze or flee, reactions they have to survive a predatory bird attack in the wild,” Dombeck said. “Mice reacted the same way in our VR goggle system as mice do in real environments.”
In studying how the navigation systems in the brain reacted to a looming stimulus, the neurobiologists found that, when the mice were freezing in place after seeing the virtual predator, the navigation neurons were reading out a different location from where the mice actually were.
“It’s as if the mice were imagining a safer location ahead, instead of freezing in place,” Dombeck said to Business Insider. “We’re excited about these results and will follow up more on this since they might help explain how imagination emerges in the brain.”
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