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Unraveling the Neuronal Basis for Spatial Navigation

Seed Grants
Awarded in 2014

Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program Round 7 - 2014

Lisa Giocomo, Neurobiology
Surya Ganguli, Applied Physics

The power to navigate through a complex spatial environment to a remembered location within that environment greatly expands the richness of our exploratory experience within the world and frees us from the slavery of being bound to a single physical position. For example, without this ability, we would not be able to find our way home, or back to the home of a loved one. How does the brain accomplish this? Recent advances in electrophysiology have found that neurons in a remarkable region of the brain, the medial entorhinal cortex, fire in precise, regular hexagonal patterns. The striking structure of MEC firing patterns strongly suggests that the MEC could form part of a circuit mediating the neural basis for spatial navigation. Despite the same MEC firing patterns being found in rats, mice, monkeys, bats and humans, no one has yet shown that the MEC functionally contributes to navigation. We aim to elucidate the link between MEC firing and navigation by following a multipronged research agenda, in which we combine electrophysiology, temperature perturbations, computation and theory. This combined approach will demonstrate, for the first time, how the detailed properties of the MEC grid code for space may aid and abet spatial navigation, a behavior fundamental for our interactions with the world across space and time.