The human brain uses a grid to represent space

Jan 20, 2010

'Grid cells' that act like a spatial map in the brain have been identified for the first time in humans, according to new research by UCL scientists which may help to explain how we create internal maps of new environments.

The study is by a team from the UCL Institute of and was funded by the Medical Research Council and the European Union. Published today in Nature, it uses brain imaging and virtual reality techniques to try to identify in the human brain. These specialised neurons are thought to be involved in and have previously been identified in rodent brains, but evidence of them in humans has not been documented until now.

Grid cells represent where an animal is located within its environment, which the researchers liken to having a satnav in the brain. They fire in patterns that show up as geometrically regular, triangular grids when plotted on a map of a navigated surface. They were discovered by a Norwegian lab in 2005 whose research suggested that rats create virtual grids to help them orient themselves in their surroundings, and remember new locations in unfamiliar territory.

Study co-author Dr Caswell Barry said: "It is as if grid cells provide a cognitive map of space. In fact, these cells are very much like the longitude and latitude lines we're all familiar with on normal maps, but instead of using square grid lines it seems the brain uses triangles.

Lead author Dr Christian Doeller added: "Although we can't see the grid cells directly in the brain scanner, we can pick up the regular six-fold symmetry that is a signature of this type of firing pattern. Interestingly, the study participants with the clearest signs of grid cells were those who performed best in the virtual reality spatial , suggesting that the grid cells help us to remember the locations of objects."

Professor Neil Burgess, who leads the team, commented: "The parts of the brain which show signs of grid cells - the hippocampal formation and associated brain areas - are already known to help us navigate our environment and are also critical for autobiographical memory. This means that grid cells may help us to find our way to the right as well as finding our way through our environment. These areas are also amongst the first to be affected by Alzheimer's disease which may explain why getting lost is one of the most common early symptoms of this disease."

Explore further: Imaging study reveals white-matter deficits in users of codeine-containing cough syrups

More information: 'Evidence for grid cells in a human memory network', Nature, 20 January 2010.

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Tachyon8491
1 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2010
Wonderful empirical confirmation. If one takes the Minkovskian spacetime concept into account, namely that spacial coordinates are actually spatiotemporal coordinates, then the neurologically embedded model analogising "external" or non-self physical environment must also include a temporal component - this confirms Wilder Penfield's observations in direct probe-stimulation of cerebral neurology as well as Primbram's active wavefield model. The observational resolution indicating the activity of these grid-cells is impressive and hints at enormously complex temporal "layering" of spatially related sensomotor experience in the building of worldmodels. If one takes into account the implications of the Bekenstein Bound as limit to neurological modelling, the brain has the capacity to model close to all particle interactions in the physical universe. (Maths analysis available)