Envision Center helps professor study how memories form with virtual reality for mice

A Purdue research team studying memory had a unique request recently for the Envision Center. A virtual reality system – for a mouse.

Krishna Jayant, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and his graduate student Hammad Khan, worked with the Envision Center to design a virtual reality environment for mice that they could use to study how memories form in the brain.

The mouse runs on a physical wheel that syncs to the virtual reality system through an optical (computer) mouse. As the wheel turns, it moves the computer cursor, giving the mouse the impression it’s moving through a physical corridor as it navigates the virtual environment.  

The setup of the virtual reality system for the mice

As the mouse explores, the researchers record the electrical signals firing in the brain and map how a location-specific memory forms in the hippocampus, which Jayant describes as “the brain’s GPS” because of the way it tracks location.

Even minor modifications to the virtual environment can be detected in the precise electrical signaling in the hippocampus.

“It’s a very real-time encoding of what the animal is doing,” says Khan. Modifying a mouse’s physical environment, such as a maze, takes more effort than changing the virtual environment, which can be done instantaneously with the click of a button.

Jayant was connected to the Envision Center by a colleague who had previously collaborated with them on a different VR system.

“This is a great resource to have at Purdue,” says Jayant. “Something that would normally cost us $50,000 to build cost much less. It was a huge benefit to us.”  

Khan says the team’s future work will include giving the mouse more choices about where to move to study decision-making in the brain, as well as using optical techniques to image the brain. The VR system was designed with these goals in mind.

For more information about working with the Envision Center, contact envision@purdue.edu.

Writer:  Adrienne Miller, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-496-8204, mill2027@purdue.edu.

Last updated: September 8, 2021