How the brain’s “inner compass” works

Scientists have gained new insight into the part of the brain that gives us a sense of direction by tracking neural activity with the latest advances in brain imaging. The results shed light on how the brain orients itself in changing environments – and even the processes that can go awry in degenerative diseases like dementia, leaving people feeling lost and confused.

“Neuroscience research has witnessed a technological revolution over the past decade, enabling us to ask and answer questions that only a few years ago could only have been dreamed of,” said Mark Brandon, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University and researchers at the Douglas Research Center. who co-led the research with Zaki Ajabi, a former McGill University student and now a Harvard University postdoctoral fellow.

Reading the brain’s internal compass

To understand how visual information affects the brain’s internal compass, the researchers exposed mice to a confusing virtual world while recording the brain’s neural activity. The team mapped the brain’s internal compass with unprecedented precision using the latest advances in neural recording technology.

This ability to accurately decipher the animal’s internal head direction allowed the researchers to study how the head direction cells, which make up the brain’s internal compass, support the brain’s ability to reorient itself in a changing environment. Specifically, the research team identified a phenomenon they call “network gain” that allowed the brain’s internal compass to reorient itself after the mice became disoriented. “It’s as if the brain has a mechanism for implementing a ‘reset button’ that allows for quick reorientation of its internal compass in confusing situations,” says Ajabi.

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Although the animals in this study were exposed to unnatural visual experiences, the authors argue that such scenarios are already relevant to modern human experience, especially with the rapid spread of virtual reality technology. These results “may eventually explain how virtual reality systems can easily take control of our sense of direction,” adds Ajabi.

The results inspired the research team to develop new models to better understand the underlying mechanisms. “This work is a beautiful example of how experimental and computational approaches together can improve our understanding of the brain activity that drives behavior,” says co-author Xue-Xin Wei, a computational neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Degenerative Diseases

The findings also have significant implications for Alzheimer’s disease. “One of the first self-reported cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s is that people become disoriented and lost even in familiar settings,” says Brandon. Researchers expect that a better understanding of how the brain’s internal compass and navigation system works will lead to earlier detection and better evaluation of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

About the study

“Population dynamics of head-direction neurons during drift and reorientation” by Zaki Ajabi, Alexandra Keinath, Xue-Xin Wei, and Mark Brandon has been published in Nature. The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

research method

Experimental study

subject of research


article title

Population dynamics of head direction neurons during drift and reorientation

Article publication date

March 22, 2023

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