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There’s no rest for the brain’s mapmakers

Grid cells that rats use for navigation remain active even during sleep, studies show

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7:00am, October 12, 2017
sleeping rats

DREAM MAP  The brain’s mapmaking grid cells keep doing their jobs, even as rats sleep, two new studies find.

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The brain’s mapmakers don’t get a break, even for sleep. Grid cells, specialized nerve cells that help keep people and other animals oriented, stay on the clock 24/7, two preliminary studies on rats suggest. Results from the studies, both posted October 5 at bioRxiv.org, highlight the stability of the brain’s ‘inner GPS’ system.

Nestled in a part of the brain called the medial entorhinal cortex, grid cells fire off regularly spaced signals as a rat moves through the world, marking a rat’s various locations. Individual grid cells work together to create a mental map of the environment. But scientists didn’t know what happens to this map when an animal no longer needs it, such as during sleep.

Grid cells, it turns out, maintain their mapmaking relationships even in sleeping rats, report two teams of researchers, one from the University of Texas at Austin and one from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. (The Norway group includes the researchers who won a Nobel Prize in 2014 for discovering grid cells (SN Online: 10/6/14).) By eavesdropping on pairs of grid cells, researchers found that the cells maintain similar relationships to each other during sleep as they do during active exploration. For instance, two grid cells that fired off signals nearly in tandem while the rat was awake kept that same pattern during sleep, a sign that the map is intact. The results provide insights into how grid cells work together to create durable mental maps.

Citations

R. Gardner et al. Correlation structure of grid cells is preserved during sleep. bioRxiv.org. October 5, 2017. doi: 10.1101/198499.

S. Trettel et al. Grid cell co-activity patterns during sleep reflect spatial overlap of grid fields during active behaviors. bioRxiv.org. October 5, 2017. doi: 10.1101/198671.

Further Reading

L. Sanders. Neuroscientists garner Nobel for discovering brain’s ‘inner GPS.’ Science News Online, October 6, 2014.

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