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    Rats and Monkeys Get Down With Virtual Reality

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    Scientists have created a VR platform that can be used by lab animals and humans alike, opening the door to a new era of cross-species brain research.

    Researchers interested in studying the functioning of the brain often rely on observing the behavior of animals such as rats and monkeys.

    For instance, a study on spatial memory could involve monitoring the brain activity of a rat running in a maze. Yet, findings from this kind of research are difficult to verify by replicating the same experiments with humans, unless scientists manage to get hold of a giant maze.

    This new virtual reality (VR) platform, developed by Western University in Canada, could finally allow researchers to create visual experiments that can smoothly be replicated across species.

    The three inventors, Julio Martinez-Trujillo, Roberto Gulli and Guillaume Doucet, say that this new "toolbox" could be used to create immersive virtual worlds for studying the brains of humans and animals alike.

    "One thing that may be very handy to people testing cognitive abilities in animals is to standardize the environments and share this in a way that we can extrapolate results from one species to another and from animals to humans. The virtual environment also make things more realistic in terms of how do we test animal models and humans," Julio Martinez-Trujillo told Sputnik.

    "We can put a human or animal in a context that looks similar to what would be in real life, but we do control each one of the variables in the environments — like make it darker, or change the color of the walls, or the amount of objects in a display or the complexity of a maze, and we can do this from one minute to the next, by having prepared environments."

    The technology is built using a 3D video game engine — called Unreal Engine 3 — that has then been interfaced with several animal-testing systems.

    The new platform has already been tested on monkeys, which strolled around in virtual worlds using special joysticks and a computer screen. The platform can also work with 3D glasses, though. A follow-up study with humans is due soon, according to Motherboard.

    VR is becoming an increasingly important tool in brain research — in effects, mice-specific VR systems have been developed in the past — and it is bound to play an even larger role as a result of the commercial innovations to the technology.

    In 2016 — which has been dubbed the "year of VR" by techies — several VR headsets are scheduled to hit the market. We might be about to see rats wearing Oculus Rifts sooner than we expected.

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    brain, experiment, virtual reality, research, technology, science, animals, Canada
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