Thursday, August 8, 2013

Scientists use video game to discover new brain cell

The University of Pennsylvania has successfully carried out a rather interesting experiment that resulted in the identification of a new brain cell. The newly-discovered brain cell was essentially the one that was responsible for helping humans keep track of their locations when navigating through unfamiliar surroundings.

Participants of the study played a game where they rode a bicycle in an open course that was dotted with target locations with flags. The players had to find and return these flags. The flags were hidden, so the players had to use their own cognitive senses to find them.

The participants were epilepsy patient who have electrodes implanted on their brains as part of the treatment for their epilepsy. Using these electrodes while the participants played, the researches at the university were able to triangulate brain activity that helped the participants navigate.
Games help science! (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Games help science! (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The research was led by Michael Kahana, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the School of Arts & Sciences, along with his former graduate student Joshua Jacobs. They collaborated with researchers at UCLA and Thomas Jefferson University for the study.

The new cells have been dubbed "grid cells", named for the triangular grid pattern in which they activate during navigation. “Without grid cells, it is likely that humans would frequently get lost or have to navigate based only on landmarks,” Jacobs says.

A similar albeit more direct study has earlier been done on rats, which exhibited similar “grid cells” that helped them navigate.

“The present finding of grid cells in the human brain, together with the earlier discovery of human hippocampal ‘place cells,’ which fire at single locations, provide compelling evidence for a common mapping and navigational system preserved across humans and lower animals,” Kahana says.

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