Story at a glance
- As memory fades, people may have difficulty learning new things or navigating their surroundings.
- In an experiment with rats, scientists explore the role of the hippocampus in helping rats get through mazes.
- Rats that experienced mazes in virtual reality performed better and had greater adaptability of the neurons.
As people age, they may worry about losing their memory and with that may come forgetting how to navigate their surroundings. Interestingly, studying how rats remember how to move through a maze could illuminate how the brain works in this process. A group of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have strapped virtual reality (VR) headsets onto rats to study how neurons in the hippocampus aid in learning.
The team put rats through mazes while observing neurons in the hippocampus and testing their navigation skills. The study, published in Nature, suggests that it may have an important role in learning.
“The hippocampus is one of the first regions to be affected in memory-based diseases like Alzheimer’s,” says lead author Jason Moore, who is a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar now at New York University, in a press release. “So it is crucial to understand its functionality, flexibility and limits.”
The researchers tested some rats in real world mazes and another group in VR mazes. The VR rats were placed on treadmills in a container where images of a maze were projected onto the walls. Rats ran through the maze to look for a reward, in this case some sugar water.
“We found that in the virtual maze, the neurons carry very little information about the rat’s position,” says study author Mayank Mehta, who is a UCLA professor of neurology, neurobiology and physics. “Instead, most neurons encode for other aspects of navigation, such as distance traveled and which direction the body is heading.”
Rats that gained experience in the VR maze were able to “remember” it better and more reliably. The researchers also found that the plasticity of the neurons, or the ability to change and adapt, was greater in the VR environment than in the simpler real world mazes. The rat’s performance also was related to this boost in neuroplasticity.
The team hopes to conduct future experiments with rats but also with humans who have impaired memories to see if VR can be useful in early diagnosis and help to assess whether medications are having the desired effects.
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