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Humans have an internal GPS system called a 'neural compass' used for navigation

Researchers have identified a pattern of brain activity that helps prevent us from getting lost, described by scientists as a neural compass.

This discovery sheds light on how the human brain orientates itself in space and navigates through the environment, providing new insights into the complex workings of our neural circuitry.

Pinpointing the location of the neural compass

The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Birmingham and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

They were able to pinpoint the location of an internal neural compass within the human brain, which is comparable to the neural codes identified in rodents.

“Keeping track of the direction you are heading in is pretty important. Even small errors in estimating where you are and which direction you are heading in can be disastrous,” emphasized Dr Benjamin J. Griffiths, the lead author of the study

“We know that animals such as birds, rats and bats have neural circuitry that keeps them on track, but we know surprisingly little about how the human brain manages this out and about in the real world,” he continued.

Overcoming challenges in measuring neural activity

Measuring neural activity in humans while they are moving is a challenging task, as most technologies require participants to remain as still as possible. However, the researchers overcame this challenge by using mobile EEG devices and motion capture technology.

In the study, a group of 52 healthy participants took part in a series of motion-tracking experiments while their brain activity was recorded via scalp EEG.

This allowed the researchers to monitor brain signals from the participants as they moved their heads to orientate themselves to cues on different computer monitors.

Exploring the hippocampus and neighboring regions

In a separate study, the researchers monitored signals from 10 participants who were already undergoing intercranial electrode monitoring for conditions such as epilepsy.

This allowed them to record data from the hippocampus and neighboring regions, which are crucial for navigation and orientation.

The tasks prompted participants to move their heads, or sometimes just their eyes, and brain signals from these movements were recorded from EEG caps and intracranial EEG (iEEG).

Isolating finely tuned directional signals in the neural compass

After accounting for confounds in the EEG recordings, such as muscle movement or position of the participant within the environment, the researchers were able to show a finely tuned directional signal. This signal could be detected just before physical changes in head direction among participants.

“Isolating these signals enables us to really focus on how the brain processes navigational information and how these signals work alongside other cues such as visual landmarks,” Dr Griffiths explained.

“Our approach has opened up new avenues for exploring these features, with implications for research into neurodegenerative diseases and even for improving navigational technologies in robotics and AI,” he concluded.

Implications for neurodegenerative diseases

The identification of head direction signals within the brain has implications for understanding diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, where navigation and orientation are often impaired.

By gaining a better understanding of how the brain processes navigational information, researchers can potentially develop new approaches for treating these conditions.

In future work, the researchers plan to apply their learning to investigate how the brain navigates through time, to find out if similar neuronal activity is responsible for memory.

This could lead to further breakthroughs in our understanding of the complex workings of the human brain.

Next steps for the brain’s neural compass

In summary, this study highlights exciting new directions for understanding how the human brain navigates through space and time using its neural compass.

By isolating finely tuned directional signals within the brain, the researchers have taken a significant step towards unraveling the mysteries of spatial cognition and memory.

Their findings shed light on the complex workings of the brain’s internal compass and hold promise for future research into neurodegenerative diseases and advancements in navigational technologies.

As scientists continue to explore the intricate neural pathways that guide us through our environment, we move closer to unlocking the secrets of the human brain and its remarkable ability to orient and navigate in the world around us.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.


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