Fun fact: Your brain is pretty similar to a mouse’s brain. That’s not a knock on you. It’s just a simple fact. While you can do things like read this article and mice can’t, the neurons in your brain perform similarly to a rodent’s—making them perfect test subjects for scientific research into the way human minds’ work.
“The brain structures between human and mouse are basically the same structures,” Daniel Dombek, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, told The Daily Beast. “We think they work in the same ways.”
The similarities between our brains and rodent brains are at the heart of Dombeck’s research involving virtual reality and mice. In a paper published Friday in the journal Neuron, Dombeck and his team have developed a new set of VR goggles specifically designed for mice—and it’s downright adorable.
Beside the cute factor, the device is actually intended to help other researchers better study neuroscience and animal behavior by allowing them to immerse the mice in nearly any environment imaginable.
“We can put on an Oculus Rift headset and see that it’s a very different experience from looking at a screen,” Dombeck said. He later added, “So the idea was to make something that enveloped the whole visual system of the mouse.”
Until now, when scientists wanted to study how mice brains reacted to different environments, they often needed to surround the creatures in screens or projections in order to simulate different environments. While the squeaky creatures can still help uncover a wealth of insights using this method, it is still ineffective because it doesn’t fully immerse them into a virtual scenario.
“The problem is the systems we’ve been using for 20 years now, it’s like us watching a TV screen: You have a big monitor in front of you and you’re not totally immersed in it,” Dombeck explained. “You can see the living room around you. The mice can see the lab frame around them.”
Also, there’s no depth. The mice knew they were looking at a screen the same way that you know you’re staring at a screen right now.
That’s why Dombeck’s lab created the Miniature Rodent Stereo Illumination VR (iMRSIV). The headset is made of two lenses with screens in them that accommodate for a mouse’s 140 degree field of view. The setup is attached to a computer that streams in visual information for the mice. The rodents, meanwhile, are perched in front of the headset atop a cynlinder that turns in place that acts as a treadmill for it to run around its virtual world.
Once it’s on, the iMRSIV puts the mouse in a 3D world that takes up its entire field of view. In experiments, the mice experienced things like virtual mazes (presumably with digital cheese at the end of it) and even simulations of predators like owls swooping in from the sky to catch them.
Dombeck said that the results were incredible. Not only did the mice react to the digital environments, but they did so much more efficiently and quickly than they did in the old system of screens and projections.
“With the goggles, the mice engaged in the task and interacted with the environment much more quickly—almost immediately,” Dombeck said. “In the first experiment we did when we had the final design, the mouse was sitting there in a dark world and then, suddenly, we turned on the virtual world and the mouse jumped like, ‘How did I get here?’. It immediately started moving on the treadmill.”
Dombeck said that he hopes to see the technology rolled out to other researchers and academic institutions soon. The iMRSIV holds a lot of potential to make studying and mapping mice brains much easier and more powerful than ever before. The setup is relatively cost-effective too, and Dombeck’s team even plans on releasing their software and hardware information on GitHub for free in the future.
Meanwhile, the team also hopes to refine their design to eventually make the iMRSIV smaller and more portable. “We can make them smaller and lighter, so that the mice could carry them around with them,” Dombeck said. “We could have animals running in the real world but seeing a virtual environment around them.”
While this might seem like prime fodder for a mouse VR Twitch channel, remember that there are tons of research applications for this. A device like the iMRSIV can help lead to a better understanding of how our own human minds work when we have things like chips and sensors embedded in our brains to help alleviate, or even cure issues like cognitive disorders and paralysis.
“What we know about our brains and animal brains, and what we know about the function and dysfunction in disease—it’s all limited by technology,” Dombeck said. “The more we develop technologies to study the [mice’s] brains, the better we’re going to understand our own brains..”
He added, “That’s the purpose of this technology and this crazy-sounding idea of making VR goggles for mice. There’s real science behind it and it’s going to trickle down to influencing human health and disease.”