The study, partially funded by a $7.5 million multidisciplinary grant from the Department of Defense, offers valuable insights into the workings of the brain's navigational system -- knowledge that could be leveraged to create smarter autonomous vehicles that can find their way around obstacles as well as living organisms.
For decades, scientists have thought that an area of the brain called the hippocampus stores maps of our surroundings, functioning as if it's the brain's file cabinet for map illustrations similar to those that pop up when we search for a location on Google Maps. But some researchers theorized that in order to effectively use those maps to navigate our environments, our brains must first convert them to the "street-view" version of Google Maps, mentally placing ourselves into a first-person view. In other words, we must develop an idea of where the map's boundaries and landmarks are located in relation to ourselves.
BU - Team - Findings - Evidence - Street-view
Now, the BU team's findings provide some of the first biological evidence that proves an internal street-view map function does exist, at least in rats -- specifically in an area deep in the brain that helps control behavior, the striatum.
Using electrodes to see what was happening inside the rats' brains, the researchers brought the animals into a room containing strategically placed, crushed bits of Froot Loops. As the rats embarked on their sugary scavenger hunt, special brain cells within the striatum -- called egocentric boundary cells -- appeared to go crazy with activity. These boundary cells fired in different ways to guide the rats through their environment.
Hinman - Cells - Striatum - Rat - Map
Hinman says the boundary cells in the striatum served as each rat's street-view map, firing in precise ways to say, "You're close to this wall," or "There's a wall on your right." This information allowed the rat to orient itself throughout its search for the...
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