The classic rodent in a maze might be a thing of the past in neuroscience as a growing collection of researchers are using virtual reality programs to test humans instead.

Veronique Bohbot, PhD, of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University, is one of those using state-of-the-art technologies for neuroscience. Bohbot and her team have created numerous virtual environments, on several different platforms, and allow humans to navigate them in order to study how the brain remembers certain settings.

I'm testing the rodent model with humans. Instead of rodents navigating mazes, we have humans sitting at the computer looking for objects. They need to find certain objects at the end of a path. We've built this star-looking maze and allow them to visualize themselves in the center of the star. It's just people on a computer, with a standard 17 inch desktop screen, Bohbot said.

Bohbot said the team worked with video game editors to create the virtual environments. The virtual environment, Bohbot said, allowed the team to try out several different experimentations. The team was able to create different landmarks, objects and tasks in order to mix things up. On one test, it removed all of the landmarks. Bohbot's team found half of the people were able to still navigate successfully through the maze, even without the landmarks.

Virtual reality has had a huge impact in putting forth new strategies that are just not possible with standard tests, Bohbot said.

The team at the Douglas Mental Health Institute is hardly the first to try out this technology Bohbot says. She said in the past year alone, there have been 400 neuroscience studies using virtual reality. Her team used both desktop computers and systems with 3D glasses to test out the virtual environments.

We used 3D visualization eyeglasses. We made my lab entirely black, and used these polarized filtered glasses which allowed different images to be seen through different lenses. It gave the users a 3D perspective, Bohbot said.

She said the desktop computer was most effective. Still, she said they will continue to experiment with different methods.

This technology has allowed us to test various facets and different patient populations. These things would not be possible without it, Bobhot said.