Can the brain map 'non-conventional' geometries (and abstract spaces)?

May 6, 2015
Non-Euclidean geometries for grid cells

Grid cells, space-mapping neurons of the entorhinal cortex of rodents, could also work for hyperbolic surfaces. A SISSA study just published in Interface, the journal of the Royal Society, tests a model (a computer simulation) based on mathematical principles, that explains how maps emerge in the brain and shows how these maps adapt to the environment in which the individual develops.

"It took human culture millennia to arrive at a mathematical formulation of non-Euclidean spaces", comments SISSA neuroscientist Alessandro Treves, "but it's very likely that our brains could get there long before. In fact, it's likely that the brain of rodents gets there very naturally every day".

Treves coordinated a study just published in the journal Interface. Euclidean geometry is the kind of geometry we normally study at school, whereas non-Euclidean geometries are all those that reject one or more of Euclid's five postulates. A geometry that unfolds on a curved surface is an example. Recent research has investigated how the brain encodes flat spaces. In 2005, Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered grid cells, neurons of the of rodents that fire in a characteristic way when the animal moves in an arena. The discovery has recently been awarded the Nobel Prize, but all experiments conducted to date have involved flat (Euclidean) surfaces. So what happens with other types of surface?

The starting point is the formation of these brain "maps". "There are two main classes of theoretical models that attempt to explain it, but both of them assume that our brain contains some kind of "engineer" that has prepared things appropriately" says Treves. "These models take for granted that the system originates with substantial prior knowledge, and they closely reproduce the behaviour of the biological system under known conditions, since they are constructed precisely on its observation. But what happens in conditions that have yet to be explored experimentally? Are these models able to 'generalize', that is, to make a genuine prediction to be then confirmed by other experiments? A correct theory should tell us more than what we already know".

Treves and colleagues have been developing a new, radically different model since 2005, and in their recent paper they have indeed attempted a broad generalization. "Ours is a self-organizing model, which simulates the behaviour of 'artificial' grid cells capable of learning by exploring the environment".

More in detail

The model is based on mathematical rules and its final characteristics are determined by the environment in which it "learns from experience". In previous studies, the model was tested on flat surfaces: "in these settings our artificial grid cell shows the same hexagonal symmetrical firing pattern seen in biological cells".

"To apply it to a new situation, we thought of having our model move in a non-Euclidean space, and we chose the simplest setting: a space with a constant curvature, in other words a sphere or pseudosphere". The recently published study shows the results achieved with the pseudospherical surface, which demonstrate that in this case the firing pattern has a heptagonal, seven-point, symmetry. This finding can now easily be compared with the firing of real grid cells, in rodents raised on a pseudospherical surface. "We're waiting for the experimental results of our Nobel Prize-winning colleagues from Trondheim" explains Treves. "If our results are confirmed, then new theoretical considerations will ensue that will open up new lines of research".

In addition to demonstrating that maps adapt to the environment in which the individual develops (and so are not genetically predetermined), the observation of a heptagonal symmetry in new experimental conditions - which would show that the brain is able to encode a non-Euclidean space - would also suggest that grid cells might play a role in mapping many other types of space, "including abstract spaces", adds Treves. "Try to imagine what we might define as the space of movements, or the space of the different expressions of the human face, or shapes of a specific object, like a car: these are continuous spaces that could be mapped by cells that are not the same but are similar to , cells that could somehow represent the graph paper on which to measure these spaces".

Explore further: Why grid-cell lattices are hexagonal

More information: Can rodents conceive hyperbolic spaces?

Related Stories

Why grid-cell lattices are hexagonal

April 30, 2015

Specialized brain cells provide an internal coordinate system that enables mammals to orient in space. Scientists at LMU and Harvard University have now shown mathematically why these cells generate hexagonal lattices.

Connecting places causes mental maps to merge

April 23, 2015

Realising how places connect geographically causes local maps in the brain to join, forming one big map which helps with planning future journeys, finds a new UCL study.

Brain's GPS system influenced by shape of environment

February 11, 2015

Patterns created by the brain's grid cells, which are believed to guide navigation, are modified by the shape of the environment, according to UCL researchers. This means grid patterns aren't a universal metric for the brain's ...

Study highlights brain cells' role in navigating environment

February 5, 2015

A new Dartmouth College study sheds light on the brain cells that function in establishing one's location and direction. The findings contribute to our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying our abilities to successfully ...

Recommended for you

Wasp venom holds clues on how genes get new jobs

June 22, 2017

Amid the incredible diversity of living things on our planet, there is a common theme. Organisms need to acquire new genes, or change the functions of existing genes, in order to adapt and survive.

Cells in fish's spinal discs repair themselves

June 22, 2017

Duke researchers have discovered a unique repair mechanism in the developing backbone of zebrafish that could give insight into why spinal discs of longer-lived organisms like humans degenerate with age.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 06, 2015
Without a non-conventinal geometry for us to move in, the question becomes one very like the sensation of a color, is it universal or unique?
not rated yet May 07, 2015
I can rotate the simplest 4th dimensional shapes in my visualization, but beyond that I can only compare it to the mapping of a 3dimensional path as you traverse it in time, which is also a 4d map of sorts.

When I think about a map of something like a set of directions to town I see it as a sequence of events in time, same goes for traversing a 3d video game level, like a first person shooter. It's a sequence of events, jumps, turns, expected dodges from enemy player's attacks, power-ups, etc. Those are events in space and time, not just locations.
not rated yet May 07, 2015
See Bernhard Riemann on discrete versus continuous manifolds and curvature of space:
not rated yet May 07, 2015
Those rats brains are not chemically enhanced, take the young generation of the late 60s, who had access to LSD, and the range of psychedelics chemicals they opened of the whole brains electrical paths 1000 fold and when there brain developed thru growing older knowledge found passage ways others don't have without an enhanced system in mechanical psychics and the ability to see patterns in different realm's Carl sagen did LSD

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.