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Two different brain regions are responsible for navigating new and familiar locations

Posted April 2, 2019

Navigation is hard. Places change all the time and yet we are still great at orienting ourselves to the right direction. Especially if we are familiar with the area. Now scientists from UCL found that different brain regions are responsible for navigating new and familiar places. They say that this could explain why brain damage seen in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease can cause such severe disorientation.

When we are using satnav devices, our brains just stop tracking location – this dependence is actually quite worrying. Image credit: Darren Meacher via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

The hippocampus is a brain region, responsible for learning. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the hippocampus is also responsible for tracking distance to a destination in a ‘newly learned’ environment. You come to a new city and you need to find that restaurant you’ve been looking forward to, so hippocampus goes to work. Meanwhile a completely different brain region the retrosplenial cortex is more active when you are navigating a familiar location. In other words, scientists showed that there are two different parts of the brain that guide navigation.

The switch between these two regions in navigation is quite fascinating. At some point in your journey a familiar location ends and an untraveled area starts, which means that the hippocampus must go to work again. It is also extremely important for the research of the Alzheimer’s disease. The retrosplenial cortex gets damaged early in disease’s progression, which explains why patients struggle to navigate even well-known locations.

Scientists found this out by performing experiments with students, who had to navigate their campus while their brain activity was being monitored. Researchers also didn’t miss the opportunity to study the impact of GPS navigation. It turns out, neither the hippocampus nor retrosplenial cortex are working when the person is using satnav devices. Professor Hugo Spiers, senior author of the study, said: “We wondered whether navigating a very familiar place would be similar to using a Sat-Nav, seeing as you don’t need to think as much about where you’re going in a familiar place. However, the results show this isn’t the case; the brain is more engaged in processing the space when you are using your memory”.

Understanding how we navigate is extremely important. Navigation and orientation affects everything in our everyday lives and it is important to keep these skills sharp. And we generally do. That is why it is so debilitating when an Alzheimer’s patient starts getting lost in familiar locations – this is one of the early symptoms.

However, researchers also uncovered another worrying trend – dependency on satnav devices. When we are using them, our brain is not tracking our location. This could be potentially dangerous in certain situations. You should try keeping your navigation skills sharp.


Source: UCL

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