‘Grid cells’ that act like a spatial map in the brain have been identified for the first time in humans , according to new research by UCL scientists which may help to explain how we create internal maps of new environments.

The study is by a team from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and was funded by the Medical Research Council and the European Union. Published today in Nature, it uses brain imaging and virtual reality techniques to try to identify grid cells in the human brain. These specialised neurons are thought to be involved in spatial memory and have previously been identified in rodent brains, but evidence of them in humans has not been documented until now.

Grid cells represent where an animal is located within its environment, which the researchers liken to having a satnav in the brain. They fire in patterns that show up as geometrically regular, triangular grids when plotted on a map of a navigated surface. They were discovered by a Norwegian lab in 2005 whose research suggested that rats create virtual grids to help them orient themselves in their surroundings, and remember new locations in unfamiliar territory.

Study co-author Dr Caswell Barry said: “It is as if grid cells provide a cognitive map of space. In fact, these cells are very much like the longitude and latitude lines we’re all familiar with on normal maps, but instead of using square grid lines it seems the brain uses triangles.”

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