Chapter 17. Learning and Memory
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Children who have a good memory are better at telling lies, say child psychology researchers. They tested six and seven-year-olds who were given an opportunity to cheat in a trivia game and then lie about their actions. Children who were good liars performed better in tests of verbal memory - the number of words they could remember. This means they are good at juggling lots of information, even if they do tell the odd fib. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers from the Universities of North Florida, Sheffield and Stirling, recruited 114 children from four British schools for their experiment. Using hidden cameras during a question-and-answer game, they were able to identify the children who peeked at the answer to a fictitious question, even though they were told not to. A potentially surprising finding (for parents) is that only a quarter of the children cheated by looking at the answer. Further questioning allowed the researchers to work out who was a good liar or a bad liar. They were particularly interested in children's ability to maintain a good cover story for their lie. In separate memory tests, the good liars showed they had a better working memory for words - but they didn't show any evidence of being better at remembering pictures (visuo-spatial memory). The researchers said this was because lying involves keeping track of lots of verbal information, whereas keeping track of images is less important. © 2015 BBC
Helen Shen Boosting activity in neurons that have stored happy memories might help to treat depression — at least according to results in mice. In a study published today (17 June) in Nature, neuroscientist Susumu Tonegawa and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge report how they reversed a depression-like state in rodents by using light to stimulate clusters of brain cells believed to have stored memories of a positive experience1. The findings are preliminary, but they hint that areas of the brain involved in storing memories could one day be a target to treat mental disorders in humans, says Tonegawa. “I want to be very careful not to give false expectations to patients. We are doing very basic science,” he adds. “This is exactly the type of work that psychiatry needs right now,” says Robert Malenka, a behavioural scientist at Stanford University in California. “This is an elegant paper.” The work has grown out of studies by Tonegawa’s lab and others that aimed to locate the memory ‘engram’ — the physical trace of a memory, thought to be encoded in an ensemble of neurons2–6. In 2012, Tonegawa and his team provided one of the clearest demonstrations of an engram. They engineered mice with light-sensitive proteins that were expressed when neurons fired. As a result, they could track any neurons that activated while the mice were given a fearful memory by being trained with repeated electric shocks to be scared of a cage3. The researchers later used blue flashes of light to make the same neurons fire again — a technique known as optogenetics — and found that they could make the animals freeze up, presumably because the fearful memory had been reawoken. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
You remember your first kiss. You remember your childhood phone number, where you parked your car, and the last time you got really drunk. You probably remember the digits of pi, or at least the first three of them (slacker). Each day you accumulate fresh memories—kissing new people, acquiring different phone numbers and (possibly) competing in pi-memorizing championships (we would root for you). With all those new adventures stacking up, you might start worrying that your brain is growing full. But, wait—is that how it works? Can your brain run out of space, like a hard drive? It depends on what kind of memory you’re talking about. “It’s not like each memory takes a cell and then that cell is used up,” says Nelson Cowan, cognitive psychologist at the University of Missouri. Over the long term, memories are encoded in neural patterns—circuits of connected neurons. And your brain’s ability to knit together new patterns is limitless, so theoretically the number of memories stored in those patterns is limitless as well. Memories don’t always keep to themselves, though. They can crossbreed, like similar but distinct species, creating the recollection equivalent of a mule. If you can’t remember it, a memory is pretty much worthless—and similar memories can interfere with each other, getting in the way of surfacing the right one. Though memory interference is well documented, researchers like Cowan are still guessing at the phenomenon’s neural mechanics.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21061 - Posted: 06.17.2015
By Nicholas Bakalar Statins, the widely used cholesterol-lowering drugs, have been blamed for memory loss, but a new study suggests that the association is an illusion. The report, in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that the apparent association was likely a result of detection bias — visiting the doctor and starting a new medicine makes people more acutely aware of health issues they might otherwise not notice. Researchers compared 482,543 statin users with the same number of people using no lipid-lowering drugs and with 26,484 people using non-statin lipid lowering drugs. Use of statin drugs was associated with an increase in memory loss during the first 30 days of starting the drugs compared with people who did not take cholesterol-lowering drugs. But so was use of non-statin lipid-lowering drugs. After accounting for many health and behavioral variables, the scientists concluded that either all lipid lowering drugs, statins or not, cause memory loss or, more likely, that previous findings were based on the expectations of the patients rather than any physiological effect of the medicine. “As you think about whether you should be taking statins, there are questions about uncommon side effects worth raising,” said the lead author, Dr. Brian L. Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. “But the question of impairing memory is a nonissue.” © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21047 - Posted: 06.15.2015
James Gorman When researchers found a group of brain cells in the fruit fly that function like a compass, they were very satisfied. They had found what they were looking for. But, said Vivek Jayaraman, when he and Johannes D. Seelig realized that the cells were actually arranged in a physical circle in the brain, so they looked just like a compass, they were taken aback. “It’s kind of like a cosmic joke that they are arranged like that,” he said. Dr. Jayaraman was investigating a kind of navigation called dead reckoning, or, in technical terms, angular path integration. It is the most basic way a moving creature knows where it is and where it is going. In dead reckoning, animals use visual cues, like landmarks, and also a sense of where their bodies are pointed. It is very different from other ways animals navigate, such as the use of polarized light from the sun or sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field. The researchers published their findings in Nature last month. Dr. Jayaraman had narrowed down the likely location of directional tracking based on other research. So he expected to find activity in the ellipsoid body, a very small region of a very small brain. Dr. Jayaraman and Mr. Seelig, at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, engineered neurons there to light up when they were active, and they recorded the activity with a microscopic technique called two-photon calcium imaging that gives a real-time visual picture of the brain in action in a living animal. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21027 - Posted: 06.08.2015
By Fiona Kumfor, Sicong Tu and The Conversation The brain is truly a marvel. A seemingly endless library, whose shelves house our most precious memories as well as our lifetime’s knowledge. But is there a point where it reaches capacity? In other words, can the brain be “full”? The answer is a resounding no, because, well, brains are more sophisticated than that. A study published in Nature Neuroscience earlier this year shows that instead of just crowding in, old information is sometimes pushed out of the brain for new memories to form. Previous behavioural studies have shown that learning new information can lead to forgetting. But in this study, researchers used new neuroimaging techniques to demonstrate for the first time how this effect occurs in the brain. The experiment The paper’s authors set out to investigate what happens in the brain when we try to remember information that’s very similar to what we already know. This is important because similar information is more likely to interfere with existing knowledge, and it’s the stuff that crowds without being useful. To do this, they examined how brain activity changes when we try to remember a “target” memory, that is, when we try to recall something very specific, at the same time as trying to remember something similar (a “competing” memory). Participants were taught to associate a single word (say, the word sand) with two different images—such as one of Marilyn Monroe and the other of a hat. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21013 - Posted: 06.03.2015
by Jessica Hamzelou Memories that seem to be lost forever may be lurking in the brain after all, ready to be reawakened. The finding, based on experiments in mice, could eventually give us a way to revive memories in people with Alzheimer's or amnesia. When we learn something, sets of neurons in the brain strengthen their mutual connections to lay down lasting memories. Or at least that's the theory. Susumu Tonegawa and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to put it to the test. The team first developed a clever technique to selectively label the neurons representing what is known as a memory engram – in other words, the brain cells involved in forming a specific memory. They did this by genetically engineering mice so they had extra genes in all their neurons. As a result, when neurons fire as a memory is formed, they produce red proteins visible under a microscope, allowing the researchers to tell which cells were part of the engram. They also inserted a gene that made the neurons fire when illuminated by blue light. To mimic memory loss, some of the mice were given a drug that blocks the strengthening of connections between neurons. This made the animals forget their fear of the cage. But the telltale red proteins allowed Tonegawa's team to work out which neurons had been involved in storing the fear memory. They then attempted to reactivate just these neurons using blue light. Sure enough, after the engram had been reactivated, the mice again acted as if they were afraid of the cage. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21001 - Posted: 05.30.2015
By Esther Hsieh Imagine you are enjoying your golden years, driving to your daily appointment for some painless brain zapping that is helping to stave off memory loss. That's the hope of a new study, in which people who learned associations (such as a random word and an image) after transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) were better able to learn more pairings days and weeks later—with no further stimulation needed. TMS uses a magnetic coil placed on the head to increase electrical signaling a few centimeters into the brain. Past studies have found that TMS can boost cognition and memory during stimulation, but this is the first to show that such gains can last even after the TMS regimen is completed. In the new study, which was published in Science, neuroscientists first used brain imaging to identify the associative memory network of 16 young, healthy participants. This network, based around the hippocampus, glues together things such as sights, places, sounds and time to form a memory, explains neuroscientist Joel Voss of Northwestern University, a senior author of the paper. Next, the researchers applied TMS behind the left ear of each participant for 20 minutes for five consecutive days to stimulate this memory network. To see if participants' associative memory improved, one day after the stimulation regimen finished they were tested for their ability to learn random words paired with faces. Subjects who had had TMS performed 33 percent better, compared with those who received placebo treatments, such as sham stimulation. © 2015 Scientific American
Athletes who lose consciousness after concussions may be at greater risk for memory loss later in life, a small study of retired National Football League players suggests. Researchers compared memory tests and brain scans for former NFL players and a control group of people who didn't play college or pro football. After concussions that resulted in lost consciousness, the football players were more likely to have mild cognitive impairment and brain atrophy years later. "Our results do suggest that players with a history of concussion with a loss of consciousness may be at greater risk for cognitive problems later in life," senior study author Munro Cullum, chief of neuropsychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said by email. "We are at the early stages of understanding who is actually at risk at the individual level." Cullum and colleagues recruited 28 retired NFL players living in Texas: eight who were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and 20 who didn't appear to have any memory problems. They ranged in age from 36 to 79, and were an average of about 58 years old. All but three former athletes experienced at least one concussion, and they typically had more than three. Researchers compared these men to 27 people who didn't play football but were similar in age, education, and mental capacity to the retired athletes, including six with cognitive impairment. These men were 41 to 77 years old, and about 59 on average. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada
By Susan Cosier Once a memory is lost, is it gone forever? Most research points to yes. Yet a study published in the online journal eLife now suggests that traces of a lost memory might remain in a cell's nucleus, perhaps enabling future recall or at least the easy formation of a new, related memory. The current theory accepted by neurobiologists is that long-term memories live at synapses, which are the spaces where impulses pass from one nerve cell to another. Lasting memories are dependent on a strong network of such neural connections; memories weaken or fade if the synapses degrade. In the new study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied sea slugs' neurons in a cell culture dish. Over several days the neurons spontaneously formed a number of synapses. The scientists then administered the neurotransmitter serotonin to the neurons, causing them to create many more synapses—the same process by which a living creature would form a long-term memory. When they inhibited a memory-forming enzyme and checked the neurons after 48 hours, the number of synapses had returned to the initial number—but they were not the same individual synapses as before. Some of the original and some of the new synapses retracted to create the exact number the cells started with. The finding is surprising because it suggests that a nerve cell body “knows” how many synapses it is supposed to form, meaning it is encoding a crucial part of memory. The researchers also ran a similar experiment on live sea slugs, in which they found that a long-term memory could be totally erased (as gauged by its synapses being destroyed) and then re-formed with only a small reminder stimulus—again suggesting that some information was being stored in a neuron's body. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20958 - Posted: 05.20.2015
by Ashley Yeager This guest post is by SN's web producer Ashley Yeager, who can't remember ever not knowing how to swim. Sometimes my brother-in-law will scoop up my 2-year-old niece and fly her around like Superwoman. She’ll start kicking her legs and swinging her arms like she’s swimming — especially when we say, “paddle, paddle, paddle.” My niece, Baby D, loves the water. She often looks like one of the kids captured in famed photographer Seth Casteel’s new book, Underwater Babies. But she probably won’t remember her first trips to the pool — she was only a few months old when her mom first took her swimming. Part of my sister’s reasoning for such an early start was standard water safety. Every day in the United States, accidental drowning claims the lives of two children under the age of 14 years. Our family spends a lot of time at the pool and the beach, so making sure Baby D is protected is a priority. But there’s another reason my sister was keen to get Baby D to the pool. Loosely based on something our mother told us, it’s that learning to swim early in life may give kids a head start in developing balance, body awareness and maybe even language and math skills. Mom may have been right. A multi-year study released in 2012 suggests that kids who take swim lessons early in life appear to hit certain developmental milestones well before their nonswimming peers. In the study, Australian researchers surveyed about 7,000 parents about their children’s development and gave 177 kids aged 3 to 5 years standard motor, language, memory and attention tests. Compared with kids who didn’t spend much time in the water, kids who had taken swim lessons seemed to be more advanced at tasks like running and climbing stairs and standing on their tiptoes or on one leg, along with drawing, handling scissors and building towers out of blocks. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
An octopus filmed off the coast of Kalaoa in Hawaii has shown that even cephalopods can get into a game of peekaboo. In the footage, shot last month by the GoPro camera of diver Timothy Ewing, the octopus bobs up and down behind a rock as a Ewing does the same in an effort to take the animal's picture. It's clear from the video that the octopus is wary of Ewing and his big, light-equipped camera — but the animal is also very curious. “Octopus are one of the more intelligent creatures in the ocean. Sometimes they are too curious for their own good. If you hide from them they will come out and look for you," the diver wrote in his online posting of the video. Ewing explained to CaliforniaDiver.com that the encounter wasn't limited to the time captured on his GoPro. "I was interacting with that octopus for about 10 minutes before I took the video," Ewing told CaliforniaDiver.com. "I normally mount my GoPro to my big camera housing, however I always carry a small tripod with me to use with the GoPro for stationary shots like this or selfie videos." The octopus, found worldwide in tropical, subtropical and temperate areas, is known for its smarts and striking ability to camouflage itself. When it feels threatened, pigment cells in its skin allow it to change color instantly to blend in with its surroundings. The animals can also adapt their skin texture and body posture to further match their background. © 2015 Discovery Communications, LLC.
By James Gorman and Robin Lindsay Before human ancestors started making stone tools by chipping off flakes to fashion hand axes and other implements, their ancestors may have used plain old stones, as animals do now. And even that simple step required the intelligence to see that a rock could be used to smash open a nut or an oyster and the muscle control to do it effectively. Researchers have been rigorous in documenting every use of tools they have found find in animals, like crows, chimpanzees and dolphins. And they are now beginning to look at how tools are used by modern primates — part of the scientists’ search for clues about the evolution of the kind of delicate control required to make and use even the simplest hand axes. Monkeys do not exhibit human dexterity with tools, according to Madhur Mangalam of the University of Georgia, one of the authors of a recent study of how capuchin monkeys in Brazil crack open palm nuts. “Monkeys are working as blacksmiths,” he said, “They’re not working as goldsmiths.” But they are not just banging away haphazardly, either. Mr. Mangalam, a graduate student who is interested in “the evolution of precise movement,” reported in a recent issue of Current Biology on how capuchins handle stones. His adviser and co-author was Dorothy M. Fragaszy, the director of the Primate Behavior Laboratory at the university. Using video of the capuchins’ lifting rocks with both hands to slam them down on the hard palm nuts, he analyzed how high a monkey lifted a stone and how fast it brought it down. He found that the capuchins adjusted the force of a strike according to the condition of the nut after the previous strike. © 2015 The New York Times Company
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: For most of her life, Cole Cohen had a hard time with all kinds of things. She'd get lost all of the time. She couldn't do math to save her life. The whole concept of time was hard for her to grasp. Her parents took her to doctor after doctor, and there were all kinds of tests and experiments with medication, but no real diagnosis until she was 26 years old. Cole Cohen got her first MRI and finally, there was an explanation. There was a hole in her brain; a hole in her brain the size of a lemon. Her memoir, titled "Head Case," is a darkly funny exploration of what that discovery meant to her. Cole Cohen joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us. COLE COHEN: Thank you for having me, Rachel. MARTIN: Let's talk about what life was like before this revelation. I mentioned your propensity to get lost. We're not talking about being in a new place and getting confuses as a lot of us might do. You got lost in, like, big box stores that you had been to before. Can you describe that sensation, that feeling of not knowing where you are in a situation like that? COHEN: Yeah. I know that sensation every time I go grocery shopping. You know, you want to get a jar of peanut butter. You have a memory of where that jar of peanut butter is, and I just don't have that in my brain. I don't store that information. So it's like a discovery every time. MARTIN: I'd love for you to read an example of one of the symptoms. You have a hard time with numbers, even references to numbers. And you write about this in the book when you're taking driver's ed. Do you mind reading that bit? © 2015 NPR
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20942 - Posted: 05.18.2015
By JIM DWYER The real world of our memory is made of bits of true facts, surrounded by holes that we Spackle over with guesses and beliefs and crowd-sourced rumors. On the dot of 10 on Wednesday morning, Anthony O’Grady, 26, stood in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. He heard a ruckus, some shouts, then saw a police officer chase a man into the street and shoot him down in the middle of the avenue. Moments later, Mr. O’Grady spoke to a reporter for The New York Times and said the wounded man was in flight when he was shot. “He looked like he was trying to get away from the officers,” Mr. O’Grady said. Another person on Eighth Avenue then, Sunny Khalsa, 41, had been riding her bicycle when she saw police officers and the man. Shaken by the encounter, she contacted the Times newsroom with a shocking detail. “I saw a man who was handcuffed being shot,” Ms. Khalsa said. “And I am sorry, maybe I am crazy, but that is what I saw.” At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the Police Department released a surveillance videotape that showed that both Mr. O’Grady and Ms. Khalsa were wrong. Contrary to what Mr. O’Grady said, the man who was shot had not been trying to get away from the officers; he was actually chasing an officer from the sidewalk onto Eighth Avenue, swinging a hammer at her head. Behind both was the officer’s partner, who shot the man, David Baril. And Ms. Khalsa did not see Mr. Baril being shot while in handcuffs; he is, as the video and still photographs show, freely swinging the hammer, then lying on the ground with his arms at his side. He was handcuffed a few moments later, well after he had been shot. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20939 - Posted: 05.16.2015
By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News A cluster of cells in the brain of a fly can track the animal's orientation like a compass, a study has revealed. Fixed in place on top of a spherical treadmill, a fruit fly walked on the spot while neuroscientists peered into its brain using a microscope. Watching the neurons fire inside a donut-shaped brain region, they saw activity sweep around the ring to match the direction the animal was headed. Mammals have similar "head direction cells" but this is a first for flies. The findings are reported in the journal Nature. Crucially, the compass-like activity took place not only when the animal was negotiating a virtual-reality environment, in which screens gave the illusion of movement, but also when it was left in the dark. "The fly is using a sense of its own motion to pick up which direction it's pointed," said senior author Dr Vivek Jayaraman, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus. In some other insects, such as monarch butterflies and locusts, brain cells have been observed firing in a way that reflects the animal's orientation to the pattern of polarised light in the sky - a "sun compass". But the newly discovered compass in the fly brain works more like the "head directions cells" seen in mammals, which rapidly set up a directional system for the animal based on landmarks in the surrounding scene. "A key thing was incorporating the fly's own movement," Dr Jayaraman told the BBC. "To see that its own motion was relevant to the functioning of this compass - that was something we could only see if we did it in a behaving animal." © 2015 BBC
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20933 - Posted: 05.14.2015
Thomas R. Clandinin & Lisa M. Giocomo An analysis reveals that fruit-fly neurons orient flies relative to cues in the insects' environment, providing evidence that the fly's brain contains a key component for drawing a cognitive map of the insect's surroundings. See Article p.186 Animals need accurate navigational skills as they go about their everyday lives. Many species, from ants to rodents, navigate on the basis of visual landmarks, and this is complemented by path integration, in which neuronal cues about the animal's own motion are used to track its location relative to a starting point. In mammals, these different types of navigation are integrated by neurons called head-direction cells1. In this issue, Seelig and Jayaraman2 (page 186) provide the first evidence that certain neurons in fruit flies have similar properties to head-direction cells, encoding information that orients the insects relative to local landmarks. Head-direction cells act as a neuronal compass that generates a cognitive map of an animal's environment. The activity of each head-direction cell increases as the animal faces a particular direction, with different cells preferentially responding to different directions1, 3. Rather than certain cells always responding to north, south and so on, the direction in which the cells fire is set up arbitrarily when the animal encounters new visual landmarks. The signals are then updated by self-motion cues as the animal navigates. Studying head-direction cells in mammals is challenging because of the complexity of the mammalian brain. By contrast, the small fly brain is a good model for studying neuronal activity. © 2015 Macmillan Publishers Limited.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20932 - Posted: 05.14.2015
By Emily Underwood We’ve all heard how rats will abandon a sinking ship. But will the rodents attempt to save their companions in the process? A new study shows that rats will, indeed, rescue their distressed pals from the drink—even when they’re offered chocolate instead. They’re also more likely to help when they’ve had an unpleasant swimming experience of their own, adding to growing evidence that the rodents feel empathy. Previous studies have shown that rats will lend distressed companions a helping paw, says Peggy Mason, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who was not involved in the work. In a 2011 study, for example, Mason and colleagues showed that if a rat is trapped in a narrow plastic tube, its unrestrained cagemate will work on the latch until it figures out how to spring the trap. Skeptics, however, have suggested that the rodents help because they crave companionship—not because their fellow rodents were suffering. The new study, by researchers at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan, puts those doubts to rest, Mason says. For their test of altruistic behavior, the team devised an experimental box with two compartments divided by a transparent partition. On one side of the box, a rat was forced to swim in a pool of water, which it strongly disliked. Although not at risk of drowning—the animal could cling to a ledge—it did have to tread water for up to 5 minutes. The only way the rodent could escape its watery predicament was if a second rat—sitting safe and dry on a platform—pushed open a small round door separating the two sides, letting it climb onto dry land. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Gareth Cook Much has been written on the wonders of human memory: the astounding feats of recall, the way memories shape our identity and are shaped by them, memory as a literary theme and a historical one. But what of forgetting? This is the topic of a new book by Douwe Draaisma, author of The Nostalgia Factory and a professor of the history of psychology at the University of Groningen. In Forgetting, Draaisma considers dreaming, amnesia, dementia and all of the ways that our minds — and lives — are shaped by memory’s opposite. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. What is your earliest memory and why, do you suppose, have you not forgotten it? Quite a few early memories in the Netherlands involve bicycles, and mine is no exception. I was two-and-a-half years old when my aunts walked my mother to the train station. They had taken a bike along to transport her bags. I was sitting on the back of the bike. Suddenly the whole procession came to a halt when my foot got caught between the spokes. I’m pretty sure this memory is accurate, since I had to see a doctor and there is a dated medical record. It’s a brief, snapshot-like memory, black-and-white. I don’t remember any pain, but I do remember the consternation among my mom and her sisters. Looking back on this memory from a professional perspective, I would say that it has the flash-like character typical for first memories from before age 3; ‘later’ first memories are usually a bit longer and more elaborate. It also fits the pattern of being about pain and danger. Roughly three in four first memories are associated with negative emotions. This may have an evolutionary origin: I never again had my foot between the spokes. And neither have any of my children. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20918 - Posted: 05.13.2015
By Simon Makin After wandering around an unfamiliar part of town, can you sense which direction to travel to get back to the subway or your car? If so, you can thank your entorhinal cortex, a brain area recently identified as being responsible for our sense of direction. Variation in the signals in this area might even explain why some people are better navigators than others. The new work adds to a growing understanding of how our brain knows where we are. Groundbreaking discoveries in this field won last year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for John O'Keefe, a neuroscientist at University College London, who discovered “place cells” in the hippocampus, a brain region most associated with memory. These cells activate when we move into a specific location, so that groups of them form a map of the environment. O'Keefe shared the prize with his former students Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, both now at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Norway, who discovered “grid cells” in the entorhinal cortex, a region adjacent to the hippocampus. Grid cells have been called the brain's GPS system. They are thought to tell us where we are relative to where we started. A third type—head-direction cells, also found in the entorhinal region—fires when we face a certain direction (such as “toward the mountain”). Together these specialized neurons appear to enable navigation, but precisely how is still unclear. For instance, in addition to knowing which direction we are facing, we need to know which direction to travel. Little was known about how or where such a goal-direction signal might be generated in the brain until the new study. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20915 - Posted: 05.13.2015