Researchers Identify New Brain Cell Using Video Game

Tell your parents: video games don't kill your brain cells, they help find them. Michael Kahana, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, former graduate student Joshua Jacobs – now at Drexel, and researchers at UCLA and Thomas Jefferson University, have discovered a new brain cell that helps humans navigate in unfamiliar territory.

Researchers used 14 epilepsy patients who already had electrodes implanted on their brain as part of their treatment, and a bicycle game, for a study that mapped physical activities to brain functions.

Participants played a game that involved riding a virtual bicycle around an open field to specific locations marked by objects. After a few trial runs that showed participants the objects visible in the distance, participants were returned to the center of the map and the objects were hidden. The researchers then asked the participants to travel to particular objects in different sequences.

The team focused on the connection between how the participants navigated in the video game and the activity of individual neurons. The cells they identified are called grid cells, named after the triangular grid pattern they create when active during navigation. These cells fire at multiple locations at once allowing the brain to keep track of navigational cues.

"Without grid cells, it is likely that humans would frequently get lost or have to navigate based only on landmarks," notes researcher Joshua Jacobs.

"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," adds Michael Kahana.

This study builds on research on humans that did not involve implants in the brain and studies conducted on lab rats.

Source: Univeristy of Pennsylvania

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