Researchers have developed VR goggles for laboratory mice to simulate a life of freedom – and let them feel what it’s like to be hunted by a bird.
No, it’s not 1 April – these compact virtual reality specs really have been custom-built to perfectly fit a mouse.
Dubbed Miniature Rodent Stereo Illumination VR (iMRSIV), the headgear is made up of two lenses and two screens, split between both eyes to give the rodents an immersive 3D picture.
Like VR for humans, the mice cannot see the outside world and are made to feel like they’re somewhere else.
But unlike the headsets we might wear, which wrap around our heads, these perch in front of the mouse’s face.
The researchers, from Northwestern University in Illinois, said by simulating a mouse’s natural environment, they’d achieve greater understanding of their behaviour.
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 laboratory peeking through.
Run for your life
Study lead Daniel Dombeck said the goggles help them “engage with the environment in a more natural way”.
Another advantage, researchers said, is they can simulate aerial threats – like birds of prey.
Researchers projected a dark, expanding disk into the top of the goggles – and the top of the mice’s fields of view.
Upon noticing the disk, they either ran faster on the treadmill used during the tests or froze, both of which are real common responses 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 watch brain activity while it chases a fly, for example,” he said. “That activity involves a lot of depth perception and estimating distances. Those are things that we can start to capture.”
Overall, the researchers found the brains of goggle-wearing, treadmill-running mice were activated very similarly to free animals.
They also learned more quickly and were better at completing tasks, like finding rewards in a simulated maze.
Mr Dombeck hopes the goggles open the door to further research, as they are relatively inexpensive and require less complicated laboratory setups than screen-based alternatives.
They could also could help gain new insights into how the human brain adapts and reacts to repeated VR exposure.
The peer-reviewed research was published in the journal Neuron.