GPS of the mind: Scientists discover new distance-detecting ‘Vector Trace’ brain cells

DURHAM, United Kingdom — Just like a car, scientists say the brain contains cells which act like a GPS. It turns out, we also have an odometer in our brain too. Researchers from Durham University in England say they’ve discovered a new “distance sensitive” brain cell. Their study finds these cells take note of how we far travel during trips and can record the locations of pertinent objects and landmarks along the way.

Some people are far better at directions and finding their way than others, but everyone’s brain contains a number of “GPS-like” brain cells responsible for mapping out places we’ve already seen in the mind’s eye. These cells, for example, remember your office’s break room layout or your favorite route to take back from the mall. The existence of these cells isn’t breaking news, but these newly discovered Vector Trace cells are adding an entirely new chapter to what we know about the mind and direction.

“The discovery of Vector Trace cells is particularly important as they are found in the area of the brain that’s the first to be attacked by disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. This could explain why a common symptom of the disease, and a key early warning sign, is losing or misplacing objects,” according to Dr. Steven Poulter and his team in a university release.

“It looks like Vector Trace cells connect to creative brain networks which help us to plan our actions and imagine complex scenarios in our mind’s eye. Vector trace cells acting together likely allow us to recreate the spatial relationships between ourselves and objects, and between the objects in a scene, even when those objects are not directly visible to us,” adds co-author Dr. Colin Lever.

Vector Trace brain cells add to an award-winning discovery

Applying these findings to modern life, these navigational brain cells are like the human mind’s own satellite navigation system. Scientists only recently confirmed their existence in 2014. That research, which answered one of neuroscience’s greatest mysteries at the time — how does the mind keep track of where we are in a particular room or space? — won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

“I’m very impressed. Not only have they discovered a new type of brain cell, the Vector Trace cell, but their analysis of its properties is exhaustive and compelling. This discovery sheds considerable light on this important but enigmatic structure of the brain, supporting the idea that it is indeed the memory system we have always believed it to be,” comments Professor John O’Keefe, one of the scientists who originally discovered navigational cells.

“This fascinating work on Vector Trace cells uncovers further levels of our memory, so often lost with brain damage and aging. This discovery gives a possible insight into certain kinds of dementia which are now of massive importance,” concludes Professor Lord Robert Winston in a media release. “The idea that loss or change of such cells might be an early biomarker of disease could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective therapies for one of the most intractable medical conditions.”

The study is published in Nature Neuroscience.

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John Anderer

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