New research has revealed key insights into the area of the brain responsible for our sense of direction. Scientists have used the latest brain imaging techniques to track neural activity in mice, and observed Head-Direction cells – which make up the brain’s compass – as the mice were exposed to disorienting virtual worlds.
The research team identified a phenomenon they call ‘network gain’, which allowed the brain’s compass to reorient itself. They argue that understanding this process could help shed light on degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, where disorientation and confusion are often early symptoms. Additionally, the researchers believe the findings could help explain how virtual reality (VR) technology can disrupt our sense of orientation.
The research, which was conducted by scientists at McGill University, was led by Associate Professor of psychiatry Mark Brandon and former student Zaki Ajabi, and co-authored by The University of Texas at Austin’s Assistant Professor Xue-Xin Wei.
Brandon said neuroscience research has gone through a “technology revolution” in the past decade. “This work is a beautiful example of how experimental and computational approaches together can advance our understanding of brain activity that drives behaviour,” said co-author Wei.
To explore how the Head-Direction cells in the brain supported orientation during disorienting events, the researchers used the latest neuronal recording technology to capture the internal compasses of mice with unprecedented precision. They found that the brain had a “reset button” which allowed for rapid reorientation in confusion, referring to the process as ‘network gain’.
Virtual reality implications
According to the authors, their findings could have relevance in the VR sector, with rapid adoption of VR technology creating new disorienting environments for its users and potentially impacting their orientation. VR systems could “easily take control over our sense of orientation,” Ajabi said.
Brandon highlighted the early symptom of disorientation in people with Alzheimer’s disease. “We expect that a better understanding of how the brain’s internal compass and navigation system works will lead to earlier detection and better assessment of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.
The scientists hope their discovery will lead to further research in this area, as well as new ways of measuring the accuracy of orientation in humans.