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Neuroscience Breakthrough: Study Pinpoints Brain Activity That Helps Prevent Us From Getting Lost

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No more wrong turns: Explore the findings of a groundbreaking study revealing the brain’s built-in GPS. Delve into the intricacies of spatial awareness and the cognitive mechanisms behind successful navigation.

In a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from the University of Birmingham and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich unveil the discovery of a neural compass in the human brain, crucial for spatial orientation and navigation.

The study finds precisely calibrated head direction signals in the brain. The findings are similar to brain codes discovered in rodents and have significance for understanding disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, in which navigation and direction are often affected.

Measuring brain activity in individuals when they are moving is difficult since most existing methods require participants to be as motionless as possible. The researchers in this study overcome this difficulty by using mobile EEG sensors and motion capture.

Dr. Benjamin J. Griffiths, the first author, explained “Keeping track of the direction you are heading in is pretty important. Even small errors in estimating where you are and which direction you are heading in can be disastrous.

“We know that animals such as birds, rats and bats have neural circuitry that keeps them on track, but we know surprisingly little about how the human brain manages this out and about in the real world.”

A group of 52 healthy subjects participated in a series of motion-tracking tests while their brain activity was measured using scalp EEG. These allowed the researchers to record brain activity from individuals as they adjusted their heads to align themselves with stimuli on various computer displays.

In a second investigation, the researchers analyzed data from ten people who were already receiving intercranial electrode monitoring for diseases including epilepsy.

All of the activities required participants to move their heads, or occasionally simply their eyes, and brain signals from these movements were recorded using EEG caps (which measure signals from the scalp) and intracranial EEG (iEEG), which collects data from the hippocampus and surrounding areas.

After accounting for ‘confounds’ in the EEG recordings caused by factors such as muscle movement or the participant’s position in the environment, they were able to demonstrate a finely tuned directional signal that could be detected just before physical changes in head direction among participants.

“Isolating these signals enables us to really focus on how the brain processes navigational information and how these signals work alongside other cues such as visual landmarks,” the author added.

“Our approach has opened up new avenues for exploring these features, with implications for research into neurodegenerative diseases and even for improving navigational technologies in robotics and AI.”

In the future, scientists want to use this knowledge to examine how the brain navigates across time, and to determine if comparable neural activity is responsible for memory.

Source: 10.1038/s41562-024-01872-1

Image Credit: Getty Images

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