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Year in review: ‘Speed cells’ help make navigation possible

Discovery suggests brain has distinct speed sensors

By
6:45am, December 15, 2015
photo illustration of rat running fast

FAST TRACKING  Studies of rat brains yielded important clues this year about special cells that appear to be crucial for navigation.

Tucked away in the brain, cellular speedometers clock a rat’s swiftness. These “speed cells,” reported in Nature this year, were a missing piece in science’s understanding of how the brain creates an internal map of the world.

Two of the authors, Edvard and May-Britt Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, are well-acquainted with these maps; the Mosers shared a Nobel Prize for discovering specialized mental navigators called grid cells that help orient an animal in space. To be precise, that orientation also requires information about how fast the animal is moving.

In the study, a population of nerve cells fired off signals at rates corresponding to the paces of a moving rat, from a slow walk to a run (

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