Can you spot your car parked in a sea of vehicles?

April 27th, 2009 - 4:54 pm ICT by IANS  

London, April 27 (IANS) Have you been through the experience of facing a sea of vehicles outside the supermart and wondering where your car is parked, even as several packages in your arms are weighing you down?
New research identifies the specific parts of the brain responsible for solving this everyday problem.

The results could impact our understanding of the functional significance of a prominent brain abnormality observed in psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia.

Different types of memory are formed in different parts of the brain. The repetitive drive to work or to the mall requires well-learnt place memory and involves different brain mechanisms than returning to your car which requires rapidly-learnt memory of a novel place.

Author Tobias Bast, of The University of Nottingham, teamed with Iain Wilson and Richard Morris at the University of Edinburgh, and Menno Witter at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology, to investigate how such rapid place-learning is translated into appropriate behaviour.

They focused on the hippocampus - an elongated, banana-shaped structure beneath the brain’s temporal lobe. The hippocampus contributes to conscious memory. It is especially important for the rapid learning of the ever-changing aspects of our everyday experiences.

How the hippocampus mediates such rapid learning has received a lot of attention. A much-studied property of individual hippocampal neurons in rats is their striking ability to hone activity to certain places - known as place-cell firing.

In other words, when rats move about in an environment, electro-physiological recordings from the hippocampus show that within seconds to minutes, many hippocampal neurons come to fire when - and only when - the animal passes a specific place, said a Nottingham release.

This means that the hippocampus rapidly ‘learns’ and then codes for specific places. But, until now, the way this rapid place learning is translated into behaviour has received less attention.

In the new study, the researchers identified the part of the hippocampus that is responsible for this learning-behaviour translation.

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