In Wired, an article written by Brandon Keim looks at what wacky stuff neuroscientist David Tank has been up to. As a Princeton neuroscientist, Tank wanted to study individual neurons in a mouse’s hippocamus as it moves. But the mouse actually moving around made it difficult to take accurate readings, since the little buggers jump around a lot. So, he locked the mouse’s head into a kind of metal helmet, placed it on a giant trackball, and hooked it up to a maze built in Quake 2.

Studying individual neurons has been possible in cell cultures, but brains in a dish behave different than real, living brains. Tracking individual neurons in moving animals has been impossible.

“The neurons move back and forth while you’re trying to measure things,” said Tank. “So we developed a way to keep the head fixed in space, but still have mice perform behaviors that are usually studied in mice running through a maze.”

Tank’s team designed an apparatus in which a mouse, its head firmly held in a metal helmet, walks on the surface of a styrofoam ball. The ball is kept aloft by a jet of air, so that it functions like a multidirectional treadmill. Around it are sensors taken from optical computer mice, which read the ball’s movement as the mouse runs.

Those readings were the input for the researchers’ virtual reality software — a modified version of the open source Quake 2 videogame engine, tweaked to project an image on a screen surrounding the mouse. Tank called it “a mini-IMAX theater.”

We think he should let the mouse join an online server, and have it’s tail trigger shooting rockets. You can see a video of the mouse on the ball, here.

mouseball