Researchers discover 'inner compass' in the human brain

Oct 04, 2010
Functional magnetic resonance image with the parietal cortex shown in red.

(PhysOrg.com) -- If you have ever lost your sense of direction in an unfamiliar place, then researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute may be able to help.

They have discovered that a person's ability to find their way is learned gradually and that the eventually becomes tuned to key landmarks in the new environment.

Dr Oliver Baumann, who led the study, had volunteers learn to navigate to landmarks around a computer-generated maze over several days. He then measured the volunteers' brain activity as they viewed each of the landmarks in isolation.

“The brain acts like a compass, with different neurons firing depending on the direction people think they are heading,” Dr Baumann said.

In the research, published in today's edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor people's as they carried out the computerised testing.

The neuroscientists found that a small area in the parietal cortex, located toward the back of the brain, provides critical information about the direction in which a person is heading.

“Here we have evidence in a normal, healthy human population that there is a dedicated cluster of neurons that encodes our sense of direction,” fellow researcher Professor Jason Mattingley said.

“If this brain region is damaged it can severely disrupt a person's ability to navigate in new situations. Such damage is common in stroke and Alzheimer's disease. People haven't made this link before – previously it was just a clinical anecdote.”

He predicted clinicians could eventually use navigational tests, such as those created for this study, as an early probe for the onset dementia.

“Our research suggests that one of the important cognitive functions we should be testing in people with suspected dementia is their sense of direction.”

There might even be scope to test the controversial claim that men's sense of direction really is better than women's.

“It is often suggested that females are poorer at navigation than males, but scientific evidence for this is controversial. Our approach could provide an objective test by revealing whether male and female brains respond differently during navigation tasks,” Professor Mattingley said.

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frajo
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2010
The term "computerised testing" leads one to assume that maze and landmarks were shown on a computer screen.
Finding a position on a 2D computer screen is IMHO not comparable to finding one's position in 3D reality as the importance of the changing temporal-spatial surrounding while moving between different places and of the various body sensations (air and ground consistency) are neglected.
Simonsez
not rated yet Oct 04, 2010
@frajo

I do agree with you for the most part about 2D versus 3D, but I do also think this study as is has some merit. It could be the case that the brain's mechanism for remembering landmarks is linked with its ability to memorize sequences (as in the case of a 2D maze: left, left, right, left, right, etc.). Consider that when you go somewhere for the first time and memorize a series of directions or turns, it is common to "walk backwards" through your memory of those directions in order to make your return route, rather than memorizing brand new landmarks.
Ojorf
5 / 5 (1) Oct 04, 2010
@frajo

Nonsense, navigating a 3d maze on a computer (like a first person shooter) or the real world is totally the same. You don't need any 'body sensations' to build up a map in your head of how your surroundings look, you just have too see it, and just one eye would be enough.
frajo
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2010
navigating a 3d maze on a computer (like a first person shooter) or the real world is totally the same.
Seems that some people's "real world" is an visual abstraction of the real world.
Ojorf
5 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2010
Ok, let me clarify, you missed my point. Learning to navigate a real 3d space and building up a map of the area in your head till you know the relative positions and distances between landmarks/objects is no different than learning the lay of a virtual landscape. Your brain handles them the same. Go download a FPS and play for a while. You will soon notice that you are capable of learning the 'lay of the level' even though no wind is blowing through your hair or debris crunching underfoot as you run around (you can even turn down the sound). Body sensations have nothing to do with it, it was not neglected as you stated as it has nothing to do with what was studied.
stealthc
not rated yet Oct 05, 2010
Yay they discovered this in pidgeons, who would have guessed that we do the same thing. This isn't a true compass though, you know there are rumors that some people always know which way north is.....
genastropsychicallst
1 / 5 (2) Oct 05, 2010
… ever is uneven any compassing but never was not even one compassest unever, bey quadrate. Mean, all compasses are always without theory because with practum is also not the real compass …

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