Brain GPS: UK scientists identify ‘internal compass’ controlling directional sense
Those who have more robust nerve signals in what the scientists describe as the brain's “internal compass” are generally more accomplished navigators, the study suggests.
The report, published in prestigious science journal Current Biology, indicates people tend to get lost when their internal navigational compass cannot maintain pace with these nerve signals.
While scientists have long held the view that such nerve signals exist in the human brain, the theory was based on mere speculation until now.
University College London (UCL) researchers who conducted the study hope the discovery will help shed light on the relationship between Alzheimer’s and a deteriorating sense of direction.
Scientists requested 16 volunteers take the time to mentally log a straightforward virtual courtyard. They were then asked to navigate around the space, relying on memory alone, while their brain patterns were scanned using a high-tech MRI machine.
The scans identified the relevant part of the brain responsible for such navigation, showing nerve cell activity in the region each time the participants attempted to virtually make their way around the digital courtyard.
The researchers concluded that the stronger the signal in that part of the brain – known as the entorhinal region – the better the volunteers were at navigating around the courtyard by memory.
Dr. John Isaac of independent scientific research charity the Wellcome Trust said the research adds to our understanding of diseases such as dementia.
“Why some people are better navigators than others is intrinsically interesting, but [the research] also helps us explain the processes that go wrong in degenerative diseases such as dementia – leaving people feeling lost and confused,” he told the BBC.