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2017

Scientists Inject Ferrets' Brains With Rabies to Study ... Vision?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Photo of a ferret

Newly appointed Dept. of Neuroscience faculty member, Farran Briggs, Ph.D. has her research highlighted on Wired.

When ferrets get a rabies shot in a neurobiology lab, they don't get infected with the virus—or even inoculated against it. They get a brain hack that might just explain how your brain handles vision, and maybe even your other senses, too.

In a lab at Dartmouth, scientists are experimenting with targeted injections of a modified rabies virus into the brains of ferrets—essentially allowing them to control how the animal responds to simple visual patterns. The goal is to understand the brain's enormously complex visual processing system. But really? Rabies? Ferrets? Are these guys just screwing around?

Lots of visual research depends on lab mice—the most popular of model organisms in biology. But Dartmouth neuroscientist and lead author Farran Briggs wanted to study an animal that uses its vision the same way humans do, in an evolutionary sense: to prey on tasty snacks. Mice aren’t predators, and their vision falls solidly in the ‘legally blind’ range. So these vision researchers turned to the notoriously vicious ferret and its front-facing eyes. They're color blind, but at the neural level, ferrets’ visual systems have “remarkable similarities to a primate, and a human,” says Briggs. (Ferrets also help avoid the ethical issues of experimenting on primates.)

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