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Virtual reality for mice teaches scientists about navigation

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Virtual reality isn't just helping scientists understand and treat fellow humans -- it's helping them make sense of their four-legged friends, too. Researchers have built a virtual maze that convinces mice they're running through hallways when they're really running on a ball. The invention makes it possible to keep the rodent's head still and study how its brain works while it's navigating. That's important when you can usually collect only limited data while a critter is on the move. Unlike earlier prototypes, this doesn't require training the mice before they can give the experience a try.

This approach doesn't translate neatly to the human world. Mice rely heavily on their whiskers to get around, and the neural imaging requires genetically altering mice to produce fluorescent proteins. However, this mouse-sized VR could still shed plenty of light on autism and other conditions that affect decisions, learning and the senses.

[Image credit: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images]

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