Mammalian brain knows where it's at

December 5, 2012
A new study in the journalNeuron suggests that the brain uses a different region than neuroscientists had thought to associate objects and locations in the space around an individual. Knowing where this fundamental process occurs could help treat disease and brain injury as well as inform basic understanding of how the brain supports memory and guides behavior.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Where are you?

Conventional wisdom in brain research says that you just used your hippocampus to answer that question, but that might not be the whole story. The context of place depends on not just how you got there, but also the things you see around you. A new study in Neuron provides evidence that a different part of the brain is important for understanding where you are based on the spatial layout of the objects in that place. The finding, in rats, has a direct analogy to primate neuroanatomy.

“Understanding how and where context is represented in the brain is important,” said study senior author Rebecca Burwell, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brown University. “Context, or the place in which events occur, is the hallmark of episodic memory, but context is more than a place or a location. This room, for example, has a window, furniture, and other objects. You walk into a room and all that information helps you remember what happened there.”

Pinpointing where the brain puts together objects and places to form a context could also matter for treating traumatic brain injuries or neuropsychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia and depression, that involve that part of the brain, said Burwell, who is also affiliated with the Brown Institute for Brain Science.

“We know that contextual representations are disrupted in mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia and depression,” Burwell said. “Individuals with these disorders have trouble using context to plan actions or choose appropriate behaviors.”

Part of the funding for the study came from a defense department grant aimed at laying the basic neuroscience framework for ultimately repairing traumatic brain damage.