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Scientists have known for a while that our brains have an internal GPS, and new evidence suggests that it does more than help us find our way to the supermarket. NPR's Jon Hamilton says it may also help us navigate a life of memories.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Scientists know that areas of the brain involved in navigation are also involved in memory, and they know that these areas are among the first to be affected by Alzheimer's disease. Howard Eichenbaum of Boston University says that's one reason the disease can leave people unable to remember what they had for breakfast and unable to find their way home.
HOWARD EICHENBAUM: People with Alzheimer's disease often do have navigational problems. They can't put themselves into the environment that they're in, so they seem to be lost.
HAMILTON: To learn more about the link between navigation and memory, Eichenbaum did an experiments with rats. Both rats and people have brains with a system that works a bit like GPS to keep track of where they are and where they're going. The system relies on cells called grid cells which help the brain maintain an internal map based on a grid of the environment. So the first thing Eichenbaum's team did was to identify some of these grid cells in a rat's brain.
EICHENBAUM: The usual way is simply to have the animal roam around a big open environment, a big table top, as it were, looking for food.
HAMILTON: As the rat moves around, the grid cells fire in a predictable way.
EICHENBAUM: Then we would place the animal on this little treadmill and let it run for a little while so that we could hold his location constant.
HAMILTON: The animal was running but no longer moving through space so the GPS system couldn't rely on changes in the scenery to trigger activity in the grid cells. Yet, Eichenbaum says most of the grid cells continued to fire in a different but still predictable way. They weren't responding to visual information anymore but instead to the distance the animal had run or the amount of time that had elapsed.
EICHENBAUM: So at the beginning, the animal might run for, say, five seconds. And all of a sudden, the cell fires in a burst (imitating neuronal firing) - a little rapid burst of activity. Then it's quiet for a few seconds. Then it might fire in a second burst, and then it's kind of done for that run.
HAMILTON: Instead of representing space, the grid cells had begun representing time. Joshua Jacobs, who studies memory at Columbia University, says that's a really important finding.
JOSHUA JACOBS: This is the first evidence that I'm aware of to directly show that grid-like representations are involved in representing time. And time is, of course, a critical aspect of memory.
HAMILTON: Jacobs says time is one of the most important tools we have for organizing and navigating episodic memories, the collection of personal experiences our brains acquire throughout life. Jacobs says you can get a glimpse of how we navigate these memories if you imagine what happens when you realize you've misplaced your keys.
JACOBS: So you might think of where you were when you put your keys. You might think of the time of day where you put your keys down, and you might kind of start rehearsing back and forth in time around that moment.
HAMILTON: Trying to figure out where you were in your day much the way you try to figure out where you are in a city when you drive. Jacobs says it makes sense that evolution would take a brain system with a relatively simple job and apply it to a much more complex task. Even so, he's cautious about reading too much into what happens in a rat's brain during a few seconds on a treadmill.
JACOBS: The implications that I'm drawing for human episodic memory is kind of under the assumption that the same types of representation are scaled up by a thousand-fold, that individual neurons in the same regions are not only representing a few seconds of time but thousands and thousands of seconds of time over the course of one's lifetime. And that's a significant jump.
HAMILTON: Jacobs is planning experiments in people that will help show whether that jump is merited. The new study appears in the journal Neuron. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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