By Schnarr, J.W. on August 21, 2017.
Research conducted at the University of Lethbridge has assisted in the identification of neural activity patterns which could help scientists understand how the brain processes spatial information.
Research was conducted in a collaboration between Dun Mao, a researcher in Bruce McNaughton’s lab at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at the U of L, and Steffen Kandler, a researcher in Professor Vincent Bonin’s lab at Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders in Belgium.
Their study, “Sparse orthogonal population representation of spatial context in the retrosplenial cortex,” has been published in Nature Communications.
“Previously, we knew little about how spatial information is encoded in large neuronal populations outside of the hippocampal formation,” Mao, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, stated in a news release.
“Now we have revealed that the retrosplenial cortex, which is highly connected with the hippocampus, encodes spatial signals in a way similar to the hippocampus.
“These results will help us understand how the hippocampus and neocortex interact to support spatial navigation and memory.”
Mammals navigate with the help of specialized neural networks which encode the animal’s location and their trajectory in the environment. This is similar to GPS. When these networks fail, as seen in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions, there can be severe disorientation and memory deficits.
Entering specific places in an environment, ‘place cells’ in the hippocampus become active. A small number of cells are active at a time in order to maximize information storage in memory networks while minimizing energy demands.
The hippocampus is thought to be involved in memory formation, organization, and storage.
Additionally, the retrosplenial cortex is involved in spatial orientation and learning, and has dense connections with the hippocampus.
The retrospenial cortex is thought to be involved in a number of cognitive functions involving episodic memory, navigation, and imagining future events.
Mao and Kendler measured activity in the retrosplenial cortex in mice as they moved on a treadmill fitted with tactile stimuli.
Using specialized equipment, they were able to compare the activity of neurons in the retrosplenial cortex and the hippocampus.
They discovered a new group of cells that fire in smooth sequences as the animals run in the environment.
While the activity resembled that of place cells in the hippocampus, the retrosplenial neurons responded differently to sensory inputs.
The results show the retrosplenial cortex carries rich spatial activity, the mechanisms of which may be partially different from that of the hippocampus.
More research is needed to investigate the relationship between retrosplenial activity and the hippocampus, the results pave the way for a better understanding of how the brain processes spatial information.
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