Scientists Discover Concept Cells for "Nest" in the Mouse Brain

Mar 27, 2007

A team of researchers led by Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) neurobiologist Joe Z. Tsien, PhD, report they have identified brain cells in mice that are involved in the encoding of the concept of “nest” or “bed.” The discovery, published in this week’s early edition of National Proceedings of Academy of Sciences, provides crucial insight into how the brain generates concepts and abstract knowledge from daily experiences.

The ability to form abstract concepts and knowledge is believed to be one of the exclusive hallmarks for humans and perhaps, other primates, and is essential for guiding behaviors in dealing with novel and complex situations. For example, when we check into a hotel, the concept of ‘bed’ in our brains helps us identify the bed effortlessly among other various pieces of furniture in the room although the bed could be quite different from the one at our home.

To study how the brain encodes abstract concepts, the scientists investigated whether and how mice would recognize nests or beds. Tsien and his colleagues found that cells in the hippocampus, a region in the brain important for processing memory, selectively fire or cease to fire when the mouse perceives nests, regardless of their physical shape, style, color, odor, or construction materials. They further found that the abstract encoding of conceptual knowledge/awareness of nests is based on the functionality of nests, requiring physical explorations to determine the functionality of the objects.

According to Tsien, the nest cells would not respond to the nest if it were covered by a piece of glass, or if the nest were placed upside-down. This suggests that conceptual categorization of those objects is defined by the practicality and functionality of these items.

“This makes good sense since even a piece of flat rock can function as either a chair or table, depending upon its height or whether it is viewed from the perspective of a small child or an adult,” said Tsien, director of the Center for Systems Neurobiology in the Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics at BUSM, and a joint professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University.

This study further illustrates that the memory system is an intrinsic part of the hierarchical architectures engaged in extraction, processing, and representation of abstract concepts and knowledge from daily behavioral experiences.

The first author of the paper is Dr. Longnian Lin, a former post-doctoral fellow in Tsien’s lab and now an associate professor at the Shanghai Institute of Brain Functional Genomics at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Authors Guifen Chen, Hui Kuang and Dong Wang, are currently graduate students in Tsien’s lab.

Source: Boston University

Explore further: Secret life of cells revealed with new technique

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

We've been looking at ant intelligence the wrong way

Sep 04, 2013

How intelligent are animals? Despite centuries of effort by philosophers, psychologists and biologists, the question remains unanswered. We are inclined to tackle this question using a top-down approach. ...

Recommended for you

Citizen scientists match research tool when counting sharks

11 hours ago

Shark data collected by citizen scientists may be as reliable as data collected using automated tools, according to results published April 23, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Gabriel Vianna from The University of Wes ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

FDA proposes first regulations for e-cigarettes

The federal government wants to prohibit sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration.

Brazil enacts Internet 'Bill of Rights'

Brazil's president signed into law on Wednesday a "Bill of Rights" for the digital age that aims to protect online privacy and promote the Internet as a public utility by barring telecommunications companies ...