Ever wake at night needing a drink of water and then find your way to the kitchen in the dark without stubbing your toe? Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) say they have identified a region of the brain that enables you to do that - and generally helps you navigate the world. Dr. Douglas Nitz, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science in the UCSD Division of Social Sciences, and graduate student Andrew Alexander worked with rats, also known as "navigational geniuses," recording the firing activity of neurons while the animals ran on a zigzag track in different locations, to show that the retrosplenial cortex appears to be critical in putting together all the information necessary for successfully getting from point A to point B. They describe their findings in a paper published online on July 6, 2015 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The article is titled “Retrosplenial Cortex Maps the Conjunction of Internal and External Spaces.” The world we and other animals navigate is complex and non-linear, quite unlike the way a proverbial crow flies. The authors say our ability to get around its numerous indirect points depends, at minimum, on mapping our position within the environment, knowing routes that take us between locations, and an awareness of the correct actions to initiate at any given time: turn right, turn left, go straight. Currently, we know that cells encoding these different forms of spatial knowledge are stored in different neural structures. Place cells and grid cells are neurons in the hippocampal circuit that are responsible for mapping the position of an animal with respect to the broader environment.
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