using your brain to get around

Boston can be a confusing place to drive, so thank goodness you’ve got all sorts of different cells in your brain to help you navigate your way. In a study published in the Sept. 11 Nature, Michael J. Kahana of Brandeis University in Waltham and his colleagues had volunteers play a taxi-based computer game in which subjects had to pick up passengers and drop them off at various locations in a virtual city.

Monitoring the volunteers’ brains as they played the game, the researchers identified distinct cells that helped the participants determine where they are (“place” cells), what they see (“view” cells), and what they are looking for (“goal” cells). They found that place cells were located primarily in a part of the brain called the hippocampus and that view cells were concentrated in the parahippocampal region. Cells throughout the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes responded to the volunteer’s navigational goals. The findings help shed light on how the brain forms spatial maps of the environment to help us get from place to place.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 9/23/2003.
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