A GPS neuron? Scientists begin to understand how people navigate their ways through everyday commute

Have you ever wondered how we manage to navigate ourselves in places we really have no memory of? It seems as if we have some sense of direction, which helps to face the right way almost every time. But why? Now an international team of scientists, led by University of Amsterdam, found that humans actually have a GPS neuron.

Every big city is like a maze, which is constantly changing, yet people find their way through them. How? Image credit: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sure, it is not called like that in scientific papers, but that is what it is basically. This new type of neuron plays a vital role in helping us navigate our environment – to go to work, school, or grocery shopping. Interesting is that people do that flawlessly without even thinking about it – it happens without conscious effort. It is all controlled in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure located in the temporal lobe.  Scientists wanted to see how this process happens and what is in charge, so they trained rats to perform a visually guided task in a figure-8 maze consisting of two loops that overlap in the middle lane.

During the experiment scientists were measuring activity in the brain of the mice. Jeroen Bos, lead author of the study, explained the results: “Units from the perirhinal cortex had sustained responses throughout the whole loop. By contrast, responses from hippocampal place cells were scattered across the maze and their fields were much smaller than the loops of the maze”. Scientists found that the perirhinal cortex’s responses align extremely closely with the layout of the maze and they think it is because of a new type of neuron, which enables the brain to specifically differentiate between distinct segments of the environment.

Scientists are already thinking how they can use their knowledge of this GPS neuron. They say that it could eventually translate into treatments for people who have impaired capacity for topographical orientation. For example, people with Alzheimer’s disease struggle to find their way to places they have visited their entire life. Scientists notice that research on neural replacement devices and assistive robots may benefit from this study as well. Finally, people suffering from some other diseases could expect help, if perirhinal cortex is chosen as a target for treatment.

But all of that is still in the future. Now scientists will continue their research in order to improve their understanding of human navigation. For most of us it comes naturally, but why? How can we find our way so easily and later do not even remember some markers that let us know where to turn? Scientists still have lots of work to do until they really know how this works.


Source: University of Amsterdam

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