A psychological study using mice, in place of humans or other mammals, is nothing new. Every high school or college student who has ever taken a low-level psych course knows that for ages, scientists have been running mice through mazes, teaching them to press levers for rewards, and having them perform countless other tiny tasks to gain greater understanding into mammalian behaviour.
But a recent study conducted at Princeton University, that looked at how memory is formed, went a step farther. For the sake of being better able to capture images of the activity in the rodents' brains, the researchers working on this particular study created a virtual reality environment for the mice to run in. Science Daily explains:
The mice walked and ran on the surface of a spherical treadmill while their head remained stationary in space, which is ideal for brain imaging. Computer-generated views of virtual environments were projected onto a wide-angle screen surrounding the treadmill. Motion of the ball produced by the mouse walking and turning was detected by optical sensors on the ball's equator and used to change the visual display to simulate motion through a virtual environment.
The virtual reality maze through which the mice ran was, admittedly, not exactly a complicated, shooter-style map. It was a simple tunnel that terminated in a T-shaped intersection, with signals that flashed on the tunnel walls — akin to highway signs — that indicated whether the mouse should turn left or right for its reward.
The study was effective at providing researchers a chance to track neural activity and guide future research on how short-term memories are formed and used to make decisions, which was its goal. But the digital world created for the study remains unusual.
That a virtual reality environment was at least as effective as a physical environment for training the mice and monitoring their brain function, though, hints at the effectiveness and depth of virtual worlds in a larger sense. We know already that human brain function can be altered by playing games. If virtual realities eventually work on our minds the same way "real" realities do, the future could indeed be an interesting place to play.
Meanwhile, somebody get those mice an Xbox controller. A really, really tiny one. Time to give them more interesting digital landscapes.