The mystery of how cells determine place
"Place cells" are individual neurons located in the brain's hippocampus that create maps by registering specific places in the outside environment. These cells are crucial for learning and memory. They are also known to play a role in such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's disease when damaged.
For some 40 years, the thinking had been that the maps made by place cells were based primarily on visual landmarks in the environment, known as distal cues a tall tree, a building as well on motion, or gait, cues. But, as UCLA neurophysicist and senior study author Mayank Mehta points out, other cues are present in the real world: the smell of the local pizzeria, the sound of a nearby subway tunnel, the tactile feel of one's feet on a surface. These other cues, which Mehta likes to refer to as "stuff," were believed to have only a small influence on place cells.
Could it be that these different sensory modalities led place cells to create individual maps, wondered Mehta, a professor with joint appointments in the departments of neurology, physics and astronomy. And if so, do these individual maps cooperate with each other, or do they compete? No one really knew for sure.
Virtual reality reveals new clues
To investigate, Mehta and his colleagues needed to separate the distal and gait cues from all the other "stuff." They did this by crafting a virtual-reality maze for rats in which odors, sounds and all stimuli, except distal and gait cues, were removed. As video of a physical environment was projected around them, the rats, held by a harness, were placed on a ball that rotated as they moved. When they ran, the video would move along with them, giving the animals the illusion that they were navigating their way through an actual physical environment.
As a comparison,
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University of California - Los Angeles