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A Virtual Reality Platform for Context-Dependent Cognitive Research in Rodents

Xue‑Tong Qu1,2,3 · Jin‑Ni Wu1,2,3 · Yunqing Wen1  · Long Chen1  · Shi‑Lei Lv4  · Li Liu4  · Li‑Jie Zhan1  · Tian‑Yi Liu5  · Hua He5  · Yu Liu4  · Chun Xu1,2,3
1 Institute of Neuroscience, State Key Laboratory of Neuroscience, Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai 200031, China 
2 University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China 
3 Shanghai Center for Brain Science and Brain-Inspired Intelligence Technology, Shanghai 201210, China 
4 Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, China 
5 Department of Neurosurgery, Third Afliated Hospital of Navy Military Medical University, Shanghai 200438, China

Animal survival necessitates adaptive behaviors in volatile environmental contexts. Virtual reality (VR) technology is instrumental to study the neural mechanisms underlying behaviors modulated by environmental context by simulating the real world with maximized control of contextual elements. Yet current VR tools for rodents have limited flexibility and performance (e.g., frame rate) for context-dependent cognitive research. Here, we describe a high-performance VR platform with which to study contextual behaviors immersed in editable virtual contexts. This platform was assembled from modular hardware and custom-written software with flexibility and upgradability. Using this platform, we trained mice to perform context-dependent cognitive tasks with rules ranging from discrimination to delayed-sample-to-match while recording from thousands of hippocampal place cells. By precise manipulations of context elements, we found that the context recognition was intact with partial context elements, but impaired by exchanges of context elements. Collectively, our work establishes a configurable VR platform with which to investigate context-dependent cognition with large-scale neural recording.

Virtual reality; Spatial context; Contextual behavior; Hippocampus; Place cell; Learning and memory; Ca2+ imaging