In 2005 the Norwegians found them in rats. Now, in 2009, they were found in humans. ‘They’ – are location memory cells in the brain. They appear to be specialized neurons that work in some coordinated fashion. It’s something like having a coordinate system hard-wired into the brain, so as you move about the environment, these cells remember (or help remember) your location or the location of things. The scientist’s call them ‘grid cells.’
Taking their cue from a the Norwegian laboratory study of rats, researchers at University College of London, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience began by putting test subjects in a Virtual Reality environment that forced their brain to recognize change of location. Then they scanned the functioning brain with MRI. While it was clear from the Norwegian study that rats, and presumably man, benefited from having some kind of operational coordinate system; what kind of system was this?
Study co-author Dr Caswell Barry said: “It is as if grid cells provide a cognitive map of space. In fact, these cells are very much like the longitude and latitude lines we’re all familiar with on normal maps, but instead of using square grid lines it seems the brain uses triangles.
Lead author Dr Christian Doeller added: “Although we can’t see the grid cells directly in the brain scanner, we can pick up the regular six-fold symmetry that is a signature of this type of firing pattern. Interestingly, the study participants with the clearest signs of grid cells were those who performed best in the virtual reality spatial memory task, suggesting that the grid cells help us to remember the locations of objects.”
At this point we know little more about these neurons other than they exist, which is actually a good start. What we clearly don’t know stimulates curiosity. There are questions like: Where, exactly are these neurons located in the brain? How do they function together? What kind of ‘image’ or ‘impression’ do they create and how does that contribute to a sense of location? What other forms of memory, cognition, or logic are involved? At the molecular level, how did these highly specialized neurons form? Are they different than other neurons? And so on…probably a lifetime’s work for many scientists.