Reverse Engineering Animal Vision with Virtual Reality and Genetics

By John R. Stowers, Vienna University of Technology and Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna Biocenter; Anton Fuhrmann, VRVis Zentrum für Virtual Reality und Visualisierung; Maximilian Hofbauer, Martin Streinzer, and Axel Schmid, University of Vienna; Michael H. Dickinson, California Institute of Technology and University of Washington; and Andrew D. Straw, Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna Biocenter

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appeared in the July 2014 issue of Computer magazine.
Click here to read the entire article.

Neuroscientists are using virtual reality systems, combined with other advances such as new molecular genetic tools and brain-recording technologies, to reveal how neuronal circuits process and act on visual information. One major goal of modern neuroscience is to reverse engineer the brain and build an understanding of what pieces are important, how they are connected, and how they ultimately work at the biophysical level. The article explains how virtual reality (VR) experiments, coupled with new advances mentioned above, are revealing new insights into the mechanisms by which animals see. VR allows researchers to control the animal’s visual experience, even simulating the result of changes in the animal’s location and direction.

In flies and other animals, one powerful approach to clarify brain structure and function is a well-controlled genetic experiment. This article describes two case studies, one using Drosophilia melanogaster -the fruit fly – to help scientists better understand visual processing, and the other using the large hunting spider Cupiennius salei. To understand Drosophilia’s visual system, researchers have developed an open source framework called FlyVR ( This system supports diverse display hardware and geometric arrangements, both naturalistic and artificial visual stimuli, and multiple real-time tracking systems.

In the case study involving the active control of Drosophilia’s flight, researchers directed the fruit flies to fly along an arbitrary preprogrammed trajectory. Because FlyVR is capable of producing similar visual input to both tethered and freely flying animals, it presents an ideal opportunity to study effects of mechanosensory disruption and understand the ways in which the act of fixing an animal, essential for many kinds of brain recording, alters behavioral responses.

As mentioned in the article, researchers in this study were able to show that Cupiennius moves toward large black bars, likely to seek dwelling plants. This behavior can be used to test which properties a spider relies on to choose a target. The VR setup allowed scientists to create any desirable environment and to alter the visual complexity as well as properties such as luminance and color, shape, size, position, distance, and motion.

Read the full article for more detailed information about these exciting new studies, and click here for a related video.

Authors’ bios are given in the full article.