Light Switches Show How Inter-Neuron Communication Creates Rat’s GPS

Researchers at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have developed a range of advanced techniques that enable them to identify which neurons communicate with each other at different times in the rat brain, and in doing so, create the animal’s sense of direction. Their findings have been published in the 5 April 2013 edition of Science magazine. There are cells in your brain that recognize very specific places, and have that and nothing else as their job. These cells, called “place” cells, are found in an area behind your temple called the hippocampus. While these cells must be sent information from nearby cells to do their job, so far no one has been able to determine exactly what kind of cells work with “place” cells to craft the code they create for each location. Neurons come in many different types with specialized functions. Some respond to edges and borders, others to specific locations, others act like a compass and react to which way you turn your head. “A rat's brain is the size of a grape. Inside there are about fifty million neurons that are connected together at a staggering 450 billion places,” explains Professor Edvard Moser, director of the Kavli Institute. “Inside this grape-sized brain are areas on each side that are smaller than a grape seed, where we know that memory and the sense of location reside. This is also where we find the neurons that respond to specific places, the ‘place’ cells. But from which cells do these place cells get information?” The problem is, of course, that researchers cannot simply cut open the rat brain to see which cells have had contact.
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