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Inspired by Star Trek, scientists are trying to learn more about animals' brains through virtual reality, and it turns out that a component of human milk helps protect babies from bacteria!

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If you’ve ever wanted to take a virtual vacation… you’ll have to keep waiting.

Unless you’re a fly. Or Ant Man.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Methods, researchers announced that they’ve built a mini-holodeck a lot like the one in Star Trek. It’s called FreemoVR, and it’s for mice, zebrafish, and flies. Unlike other virtual reality technology, this holodeck is totally immersive, so the animals can move around VR environments pretty freely.

Eventually, scientists hope this technology will help us study some of the brain mechanisms behind animal behavior, like making decisions or social interactions. See, when we study animals in a lab, it’s hard to control variables to research how an animal responds to different environments or to learn about interactions in groups of animals. Virtual reality can help, but a lot of VR studies involve restraining animals with something like a harness and only measuring their eyes or brain waves to see how they respond.

That’s not exactly a natural interaction, and the brain doesn't process, say, running on a spherical treadmill with VR the same way as running through an actual maze. They’re different sensory experiences. But now, scientists have tried to build custom holodecks for fruit flies, zebrafish, and mice.

These animals are used as model organisms in studies all the time because they have some similar biological factors as humans. Plus, they’re pretty easy to breed in a lab and manipulate for experiments. In this paper, the researchers ran tests to see if the animals thought their holodeck environment was real -- basically, if they changed their behavior to match what was happening on the screens.

Cameras tracked their positions, and then computers updated the projections to respond to anything the animals did. In the fly experiment, the holodeck was a chamber with images projected on the walls. And researchers created a virtual pillar to see if the fly would move around it.

Since mice often avoid heights, the researchers set up a holodeck with a circular running track over a floor projection. Half of the track was made to look like it was high above the ground, while the other half looked lower. They wanted to see if the mice would stay on the lower side.

And zebrafish often swim in groups, so the researchers used a special bowl and projected a bunch of space invaders -- like the video game! The sprites had an open spot in their squad, to see if the fish would join them. They also did other tests, like designing a holographic fish to see if the real animal would interact with it.

And it worked! The flies flew around the projected pillar, the mice mostly stayed on the seemingly lower end of the track, and the fish followed their virtual leaders. Now that scientists think they’ve built a convincing holodeck, the next step is to use it in experiments to see what we can learn about these animals’ brains.

This probably won’t turn into a human-sized holodeck any time soon, but still, it’s pretty awesome they could put this all together in the first place. Meanwhile, in the world of medicine, scientists are trying to figure out what to do about bacterial resistance. Because they mutate and evolve so quickly, many kinds of bacteria have become immune to the antibiotics that we use to kill them.

An estimated 23,000 people die every year because their illness doesn’t respond to medicine. Besides being careful about what they prescribe, doctors are also trying to find new compounds that bacteria aren’t resistant to yet. And some of them are in human breast milk.

We already know breast milk is packed with nutrients and bacteria-fighting proteins, but according to new research presented by Vanderbilt University this week, it has bacteria-killing sugars, too. In one small pilot study, the researchers examined 5 samples of breast milk. They isolated a mix of small sugars, called oligosaccharides, from each sample, then applied them to a bacterium called Group B Streptococcus, or Group B Strep.

If their parent is infected with the bacteria, a baby can get sick on their way out of the womb, which causes a fever or problems feeding. But not all babies born to infected parents get sick, so the researchers thought there might be some resistance passed on in breast milk. The mix of sugars in each sample depended on a few factors, like the person’s blood group, but all of them seemed to be effective.

The sugars from one sample almost killed an entire colony of Group B Strep, while the others all killed at least some bacteria. We don’t know exactly how this works yet, but the oligosaccharides might be interfering with the bacterial DNA. And the team is already working on a second study.

This time, they have more than 24 samples of milk, and the results so far are promising. Besides killing individual bacteria, some of the sugars also broke down biofilms, a slimy protective network of bacteria that are stuck together with some organic goop. And combining the sugars with an antibacterial protein called polymyxin B, found in human saliva and potentially breast milk, made it better at poking holes in bacterial cell membranes to fight off infection.

Through follow-up experiments that haven’t been published yet, the scientists also reportedly found the sugars could kill bacteria besides Group B Strep that cause infections in hospitals. So even if we can’t have holodecks for humans yet, at least we’ll hopefully have better medical treatments. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow News, brought to you by our Patreon President of Space SR Foxley!

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