Brain’s GPS Found, Scientists Say

The brain has a GPS system of its own, and scientists are getting closer to finding out how it works. That’s the claim made in a recent Princeton University study published in Nature in which first author Cristina Domnisoru and colleagues described their investigation into the so-called grid cells that are used to help animals — and humans — find their way.

If, like me, you wonder how that can be true if you spend so much time wandering around lost in circles, Domnisoru’s research was conducted on mice. The rodents in question were put on treadmills in a virtual reality environment that allowed the team to measure the electrical impulses that fired in their tiny mousey brains as they oriented themselves along the path.

I’m almost afraid to ask what happened to a good old-fashioned maze. Virtual reality for mice? Don’t tell Keanu Reeves.

When the grid cells were first discovered, researchers thought that the position-locator cells worked on their own. However, the new research suggests that they work collectively together, more or less like a natural GPS. Science writer Cather­ine Zan­donella explained it this way: “The brain is made up of vast numbers of neurons connected together into networks, and the attractor network is a theoretical model of how patterns of connected neurons can give rise to brain activity.”

And one of those networks, according to the Princeton team, is a functional brain GPS. Or perhaps, in my case, a not-so-functional brain GPS.

Am I really surprised that mice might have a better sense of direction than I do? Nah. I already knew that pigeons had me beat.

An earlier Nature report explained the new research on how homing pigeons can find their way so easily. In addition to using magnetic cells in their brain to help them orient themselves on planet earth, they also rely on so-called visual cues. In other words, in addition to having a compass in their heads, they also have a great memory for what the landscape looks like.

Despite a recent report that Garmin’s profits have fallen, I don’t think they’re in any serious danger from organic GPS systems. I’m so relieved that pigeons and rodents have no trouble finding their way. Now when are you folks going to invent something to upgrade my poor human brain’s GPS?