An internal GPS system that allows people to keep track of their location has been discovered for the first time in human brain cells, according to a study by the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
The finding helps explain how humans navigate by indicating that we use an internal GPS system through location mechanisms similar to those of rats and other many animals.
The “grid cells,” which have previously been identified in animals, were discovered by researchers because the neurons were activated in the brains of participants who were exploring a virtual environment. These particular cells function in the human brain like an internal GPS system and could also be linked to memory as well, according to the researchers.
The study found its results when scientists focused on grid cells by using electrodes that were implanted in the brains of patients who were being treated for drug-resistant epilepsy. The electrodes are used by doctors to help locate the origin of the seizures in their patients.
As part of the study, the patients were asked to a play a virtual reality game that placed them in an outdoor environment. Once in the simulated environment, they were directed to locate various items such as water bottles or bicycles. The item would then disappear, and the patients would have to navigate back to the object’s original position using a joystick.
The scientists who observing the task were able to detect activity of the grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, the region of the brain that is involved in memory and is affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists had previously learned that the brains of rodents and nonhuman primates have grid cells that assist animals to keep track of their positioning when navigating in unaccustomed surroundings.
Grid cells are able send signals to place cells, and together they send signals to the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for forming memory. The grid and place cells help provide a mental picture of where the animal is in its setting.