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Olfactory virtual reality reveals the mammalian brain can navigate by smell alone


A study published in Nature Communications reported that mammals could navigate their surrounding using only their sense of smell. According to the authors, a virtual reality system that they developed helped determine how certain smells can affect the behavior of test subjects.

  • While all motile organisms require the spatially distributed chemical features of their environment to determine their behaviors, the neural mechanisms responsible for such behaviors in mammals have proven difficult to study.
  • Studies concerning motile organisms must face obstacles such as the technical challenges of regulating chemical concentrations in space and time during behavioral experiments.
  • To address these obstacles, the researchers developed an olfactory virtual reality system to control a virtual olfactory landscape.
  • The olfactory virtual reality system made use of uses rapid flow controllers and an online predictive algorithm to deliver precise scent distributions (such as methyl valerate/bubblegum smell and α-pinene/pine smell) to head-fixed mice. The smells helped the mice navigate as they explored a virtual environment.
  • The researchers made use of a virtual reality system since it provided them with exceptional experimental capabilities to help them examine the neural basis of animal behavior. With this technology, the researchers were able to control the animal’s sensory environment accurately.
  • Because of the olfactory virtual reality system, the researchers were able to form links between the sensory features of the environment and the tuning properties of individual neurons that are often complicated to determine when observed in real-world conditions.

The researchers posited that the virtual olfactory system they developed could one day be applied to commercial virtual reality systems to produce a more immersive multi-sensory experience for humans.

Find the full text of the study at this link.

Journal Reference: 

Radvansky BA, Dombeck DA. AN OLFACTORY VIRTUAL REALITY SYSTEM FOR MICE. Nature Communications. 26 February 2018;9(1). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03262-4

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