IIT Researchers Study Nerve Cells That Control Spatial Navigation

Researchers at IIT Madras are using computer modelling to understand nerve cells that control spatial navigation and movement in mammals.

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) researchers claim this is the first study in the world to report the neural principles of spatial cells in three-dimensional space and can help in unravelling the mechanisms of spatial disorientation associated with neurogenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

The study has also been published in the renowned international journal Nature Communications.

V Srinivasa Chakravarthy, who heads the team from IIT Madras, has used an interdisciplinary approach linking neuroscience, computer programming, physics and maths to develop theoretical models that explain the positions and functions of spatial cells in a rat's brain.

They create computer models of the nerve network in the hippocampus to simulate brain activity seen in the biological system. Neural activities associated with the movement of a virtual animal in three dimensional space are simulated.

"Three dimensional (3D) spatial cells in the hippocampus are believed to support the existence of 3D cognitive maps. Through modelling, we work out the essential learning rules that are required for the development of the 3D maps in the brain." - V Srinivasa Chakravarthy

The models not only show the presence of the place cells, but also the behaviour of grid cells when the animal navigates a vertical plane.

In addition, they show the presence of two new types of spatial cells called ‘3d-border cells’ and ‘plane cells’, both of which, can play a part in the animal's perception of and movement through heights.

"All these types of cells interact to give a complete representation of the animal’s changing positions, which may be stored in the mammal’s memory as a set of internal guides or maps to particular locations in its environment." - V Srinivasa Chakravarthy

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