The sooner we can understand how memories are formed, the closer we are to understanding how neurological diseases erode them.
Researchers at Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia have stuck mice into virtual reality simulators. The reason isn't so much to subject them to any number of weird and minimally useful VR applications that we humans have already developed, but to see they navigate and how they form actual memories of pathways.
Data from the trials will be used to see how mammalian brains have adapted to form memories, which can then be used to understand how neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's affect how the brain forms memories.
In this video from the BBC, researchers from Janelia use "virtual walls" to tickle the mouse's whiskers, giving them the impression that there are walls blocking them on the side. All the while, the mouse is actually navigating these "tactile walls" on a spherical treadmill.
While Princeton researchers have created visual displays that trick the mouse into believing it's actually enclosed in virtual mazes, here, Janelia scientists have created another alternative setup that just uses touch, instead of sight.
Either way, it's more flexible and less time-consuming to make than physical mazes, which means that they can gather high-quality data that much quicker, and use fewer animals in the process.