Scientists immersed rats in a virtual reality (VR) world where they played games. But they could only be won by creative route planning.
Some rats managed to pass the task of scientists, so scientists assume that rats have signs of imagination. The results of the study were published by scientists from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the journal Science, writes Live Sciene.
Route planning and orientation are basic human skills.
This type of imagination is controlled by the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory. For example, people with damaged hippocampus have difficulty visualizing virtual routes.
Previously, scientists did not know whether rats possessed this type of imagination. So researchers used virtual reality (VR) to study it.
The team implanted electrodes in the brains of rats to measure their activity in the hippocampus. After that, they were immersed in the world of virtual reality: they were in an arena surrounded by a 360o screen, on which there was a virtual environment.
The rodents were placed on a spherical treadmill that allowed them to rotate freely and view the entire panorama.
The scientists then added a rack in the virtual environment where the rats received treats.
Each round the rack was in a new location, so after a few games the rats explored the entire landscape.
For each set of coordinates in the virtual environment, the electrodes revealed a certain pattern of activity in the hippocampus.
The scientists hypothesized that rats could reproduce these patterns if they imagined themselves following a route. The researchers then disconnected the treadmill and rewarded the rat for reproducing the pattern of hippocampal activity.
The next task was to recreate the route. They connected the sensors and watched how the computer converted the animal’s brain activity into movement on a virtual reality screen.
That is, the rats had to use their thoughts and build a route in their heads to get to the reward.
It turned out that the rodents created efficient pathways in the brain, even regardless of how they physically moved.
And in the third stage, the researchers tested whether the rats could imagine the movement of the object towards the goal post, and not themselves.
This game was called “Jedi”. She required the rats to “use force” to move a virtual box toward the goal post. The rodents’ success showed that they can use their mental maps to think about navigating an object in their environment without moving.
Similarly, for example, a person sitting in an office can imagine that he takes a cup from the coffee maker and fills it with coffee.
But the scientists decided to complicate the task and changed the location of the target, requiring the animal to produce activity patterns associated with the new location.
Like humans, rats only needed a few seconds to plan routes, suggesting that this form of imagination may be similar across species.
“I’ve seen the same experiment done in humans with similar results, which in itself indicates a potential similarity“, said Chongxi Lai, one of the leaders of the study.
At the same time, his colleague Albert Lee noted that it is worth investigating further whether rats will be able to navigate in the environment without receiving hints.
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