A new study out of Dartmouth College is beginning to illuminate the role that our brain cells play in determining our physical location and direction. These findings are important in contributing to a better understanding of the neural mechanisms that determine our ability to efficiently navigate our surrounding environment.
Knowing where we are in space is fundamental
A functional component to our survival is our ability to understand where we are in in relation to our environment, including knowing which direction we face, how to navigate our body, and how to use our spatial orientation on demand, at any given moment.
Certain types of cells contribute to our spatial awareness
The study focuses on analysing the neural mechanisms that determine our sense of direction and location. These mechanisms are the basis of our spatial orientation perspective within our surroundings. This is an essential component to physical navigation. Researchers have discovered numerous types of cells within the brain that function in direct response to our understanding of where we are (called place cells) and where we are heading (called head direction cells.)
A third cell type has been found which is triggered during multiple places within our environment. When these numerous places are simultaneously monitored, they form a repeating pattern with a grid-like hexagonal geometry.
Where these cells are located within the brain
These grid cells are found in a region of the brain called the entorhinal cortex (EC.) The EC is located in the medial temporal lobe and functions as the hub of our memory network and physical navigation network, meaning this study is essential to further understanding of traumatic brain damage and Alzheimer’s disease.
The purpose of these cells
In theory, these grid cells help us keep track of where we are spatially and provide continuous updates as we move about, as well as how far we have traveled and the precise path we’re currently taking and the one we’ve already taken.
Scientists have also found that the direction our head is facing may be a determinate in generating the appropriate spatial recognition signal for our grid cells. These findings are so significant that they have resulted in a 2014 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology to the two laboratories involved in this study, which are responsible for discovering place cells and grid cells.