New virtual reality ‘toolbox’ allows for cross-species brain testing

Neuroscientists at Western University have developed a new virtual reality ‘toolbox’ that can be used to build video games with a unique capacity for teaching and testing both humans and animal models.

Julio Martinez-Trujillo, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a Robarts Research Institute scientist, and his collaborators Roberto A. Gulli and Guillaume Doucet from the Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory, recently published an account of the new toolbox in Journal of Neuroscience Methods.

“The biggest challenge for neuroscientists is translating research from animal models to humans and the translation fails most often because the experiments don’t look alike,” says Martinez-Trujillo, who also holds Western’s Provincial Endowed Academic Chair in Autism.

Martinez-Trujillo, a member of Western’s renowned Brain and Mind Institute, notes that most spatial memory experiments include animal models being tested in actual, real-world mazes while humans are assessed virtually, using computer screens, more often than not in a two-dimensional setting.

“It’s very hard to test a person in a real maze when you have to record brain activity with an EEG (electroencephalogram) or an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. It’s actually impossible,” says Martinez-Trujillo.

Using standardized pre-existing software, the new virtual reality toolbox allows the investigators to homogenize psychological tests across species by creating three-dimensional environments with specific learning tasks and end goals.

“Now we can actually test humans and animal models within exactly the same environment and very similar settings, which allows for generalization from animal models into humans and makes the research findings translational,” says Martinez-Trujillo.

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As an example, Martinez-Trujillo suggests a video game could be developed for memory training and testing of senior citizens, perhaps suffering from early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, set in a real-world environment like a grocery store to provide a more realistic series of challenges for the participant. While an animal model would obviously not be placed in this same virtual environment, the fact is that this level of realism is now available to investigators.

“A 360-degree, VR (virtual reality) video game allows researchers to be more realistic in terms of settings and situations but you still have complete control of the environment because we program the game,” says Martinez-Trujillo.

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