Bat Brains and the Nobel Prize

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Not everyone gets their research written about by this week’s Nobel Prize winners:

All mammals face the challenge of navigating in complex, three-dimensional (3D) environments, whether they are swinging from branch-to-branch in forests or burrowing underground tunnels. How does the brain maintain a sense of place and direction in 3D? In a beautiful study published on Nature's website today, Finkelstein et al. report that bats have an internal neural compass that tracks direction in 3D during both surface locomotion and flight.

That’s from Prof. May-Britt Moser in Nature’s “News and Views.” It turns out that the whole place-cell-grid-cell community is quite excited by today’s prize, not just because the Mosers are apparently well-loved, but because it boosts all the research in this field. And the fact that cells in our brain form little hexagonal grids that keep us oriented, map-like, in our surroundings is not just an important insight into the workings of our brain; it is a pyrotechnic flash of insight that changes how we understand the brain to work.

Arseny Finkelstein is in the group of Prof. Nachum Ulanovsky, and to tell the truth, their work does not need a lot of extra boosting. Watch the video of bats flying around their lab to see why: http://www.nature.com/news/bat-nav-system-enables-three-dimensional-manoeuvres-1.16475. Among other things, they show that you can really apply mathematical models to understand how our mammalian brains get their bearings.

Understanding bats’ internal compasses, by the way, could have real implications for research into human brain malfunctions, among them the sudden vertigo occasionally experienced by pilots, when they lose their sense of up and down.

 

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