WATCH THIS: Virtual reality for mice could help cure Alzheimer’s

A wave of virtual-reality (VR) devices, from the Oculus Rift to the HTC Vive, may be about to hit our living rooms, but VR is also being used to study the ways mental diseases affect our memories.

Scientists at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in Virginia have created a tactile VR system for mice, as this video courtesy of the BBC shows.

The mouse is placed in on a treadmill in a virtual tunnel. As it moves its whiskers are “tickled” by a pair of moveable walls, and this tricks it into thinking it is moving in a real space. The institute refer to this as a “videogame-like maze” projected onto “the rodent equivalent of an IMAX theatre”.

Far from being used to develop miniature video games for pets, the system allows the researchers to monitor the mouse’s brain activity and glean a better understanding of how memories are formed. The hope is that this knowledge can be used to help combat diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  

“By being able to relate neural activity to behaviour, we can understand how mammalian brains in general respond to things like injury – for example, how it is they learn to find routes and paths, how they form memories,” said Nicholas Sofroniew, postdoctoral associate at HHMI Janelia Research Campus.

“A better understanding of the basics of memory formation I think is crucial for trying to understand any of the diseases that affect humans where memories start to be lost, such as Alzheimer’s.” 

For more on how scientists are tackling diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, read this piece on how technology is curing mental illness.

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