COVID has changed our lives a lot. Physical distancing has become the thumb rule when one goes out. A new UCLA study reveals how the brain navigates places and monitors someone else in the same location.
The study suggests how our brain generates a common code to mark where other people are in relation to ourselves.
Senior author Nanthia Suthana, an assistant professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said that the study was done on how the brain reacts when we navigate a physical space, first done alone and then with others.
The result shows that the brain creates a universal signature to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
The team observed epilepsy patients whose brain was surgically implanted with electrodes to control their seizures. The electrodes resided in the medial temporal lobe, the brain centre linked to memory and suspected to regulate navigation, much like a GPS device.
Matthias Stangl, a postdoctoral scholar in Suthana’s lab, explained that earlier studies which showed low-frequency brain waves by neurons in the medial temporal lobe helped the rodents keep track of where they were as they were navigating a new place.
A limitation in technology has prevented them from studying this in humans. A $3.3 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative, the team invented a special backpack which has the computer that wirelessly connects to brain electrodes.
This helped to study subjects as they moved freely rather than being locked to a room. The experiment was conducted by giving each patient a backpack and asking them to explore an empty room and find a hidden spot, remember it for future searches. As they walked, the backpack recorded their brain waves, eye movements and paths through the room in real-time.
As they were searching through the room, their brain waves flowed in a distinctive pattern suggesting that each person’s brain has mapped out the walls and other boundaries.
One more interesting thing to be noted here is that the patient’s brain waves also flowed similarly when they sat in a corner of the room and watched someone else approach the location of the hidden spot. This means that our brains produce the same pattern to track where we and other people are in a shared environment.
The team also found out that what we pay attention to may influence how our brains map out a location. This means that under certain mental states, the brain waves pattern helps us recognize boundaries. Here, it was when people were focused on a goal and hunting for something.
The team concluded by saying that there will be more exploration on how the brain reacts to complex situations.
Matthias Stangl, Uros Topalovic, Cory S. Inman, Sonja Hiller, Diane Villaroman, Zahra M. Aghajan, Leonardo Christov-Moore, Nicholas R. Hasulak, Vikram R. Rao, Casey H. Halpern, Dawn Eliashiv, Itzhak Fried, Nanthia Suthana. Boundary-anchored neural mechanisms of location-encoding for self and others. Nature, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-03073-y
Press Release: UCLA Health