UCI scientists identify important aspect of the brain’s navigational system

September 29, 2017

Bruce McNaughton, distinguished professor of Neurobiology and Behavior (NB&B), and his team of researchers have shed light on how the brain functions to determine how fast, and in which direction body location is changing. Along with Dr. Ivan Skelin, co-first author and postdoctoral researcher in NB&B, their findings could potentially be useful in the guidance of the development of brain-machine interfaces.

The ability to successfully navigate in the environment is essential both for animals searching for food or escaping predators, as well as for human urban dwellers. It is something we take for granted, but under the hood, it is supported by still incompletely understood brain networks that continuously calculate our position in the environment. Moreover, the location where a certain experience occurred is an indispensable building block of memory.

In the study which appears in the September issue of the journal Neuron, the research team led by Bruce McNaughton, present the findings which improve our understanding of the brain’s ability to tell how fast and in which direction body location is changing.

“The parietal cortex is part of the brain that processes visual and other sensory information in order to continuously update the speed and direction of movement”, said Dr. Ivan Skelin, co-first author of the study and also a postdoctoral researcher at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge. “In this study, we found that there is a division of work between large groups of cells, or modules, each being active when the experimental rat’s speed/direction were in a certain range [e.g. 10-20 cm/sec and heading north-east].”

Based solely on the activity of these cell modules, researchers were able to predict animal speed and direction with high accuracy. The newly acquired knowledge of where and how this information is organized in the brain is a potentially useful guidance for the development of brain-machine interfaces, which are already helping paralyzed people interact with the environment using their thoughts.

Other researchers who contributed to this work were Aaron Wilber and Wei Wu from Florida State University. The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.