Virtual Reality Worlds Are Being Built for Mice and Monkeys
Researchers have devised an ingenious way to conduct cross-species brain research on an unprecedented scale. This time, they are building virtual reality worlds where lab animals such as mice and monkeys will set foot in. The lab animals are taken through the virtual environments in video games and the scientists study their brain patterns and activity.
VR Worlds for Mice and Monkeys Built for Research
Neuroscientists usually work with lab rats and other animal models to study the brain, but their findings aren’t always applicable to humans, explained Julio Martinez-Trujillo, who’s based at Western University’s renowned Brain and Mind Institute in London, Ontario. For starters, humans can’t be dropped in a maze like lab rats are; the space required for that kind of endeavor will be the size of a building.
“A challenge in neuroscience is how to bring animal research closer to human research,” Martinez-Trujillo told Motherboard. “We decided to try to solve it by using tools that are available in the video game world.”
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In a recent study, published in Journal of Neuroscience Methods, a team of neuroscientists—including Martinez-Trujillo, Roberto Gulli, and Guillaume Doucet, who are both also affiliated with McGill University—talk about a new virtual reality “toolbox,” which they have designed to be used in building video games and virtual environments. These VR worlds for mice and monkeys will aid brain research in both animals and humans.
Video games and virtual reality have already been used in a limited number of lab animal studies, said Doucet, who has a background in 3-D animation. But in those cases, “the VR was specifically made for mice,” and so the scientists’ findings didn’t really translate to other species. Most neuroscience experiments use MATLAB or Python, he continued. “These are not made for 3D animation or VR experiments, so I created a way to take a video game engine and have scripts that could interface with already existing experiments,” he said.
Basically they have designed a bridge that will provide the necessary framework to create 360 degree VR environments that will enable an in depth study of animals and humans.
Doucet and his team employed a video game development framework known as Unreal Engine 3, which is used in plenty of big-budget, commercial video games. That’s what “handles the virtual environment,” Doucet said, and makes sure it looks realistic: that a shadow lands in the right place when an object is moved, for example.
“We created a translator, or an interface, between [our] experimental programs, and the video game language that works in the virtual world,” explained Gulli.
While the toolbox hasn’t yet been tried for studies concerning animals and humans, the team has done some work with monkeys, which is still unpublished, Gulli said. “We used the VR toolbox to create an environment in which monkeys had to navigate through a virtual world,” he explained, “and create memories within it.”
As these monkeys explored the maze, they had to look for cues to help them figure out what to do; for example, the colors of the walls might change to tell a monkey to turn left or right.
Monkeys aren’t wearing VR helmets, Gulli said, “although it is programmed in such a way that they could put on [3D] glasses.” Instead, they’re sitting in front of a computer screen and navigating with a (reinforced, monkey-proof) joystick. “It’s pretty intuitive to them,” he added. “They can learn to use these joysticks on the timescale of minutes.”
According to Martinez-Trujillo, they’re hoping to implement a human version of the study soon.
Neuroscientists are still figuring out how humans and other species respond to virtual reality, but research carried out so far in the virtual world does seem to tell us a lot about how we respond to the real world too. Now we’ll be able to know what happens in the brains of lab rats and other species in these environments—and how it compares to humans.