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Brain’s GPS cells map time and distance, not just location

When rats run on a treadmill, grid cells act like clocks and odometers

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12:00pm, November 4, 2015

KEEPING TIME  A grid cell fires off signals at particular times as a rat runs on a treadmill. The cell behaved similarly as the rat ran at slow (blue), moderate (brown) and fast (green) speeds. 

Specialized cells that make up the brain’s GPS system have an expanding job description. In addition to mapping locations, these cells can keep track of distance and time, too, scientists report in the Nov. 4 Neuron.

Those specialized cells, called grid cells, were thought to have a very specific job, says neuroscientist Loren Frank of the University of California, San Francisco. But, he says, the new study says, “not so fast, everybody.”

These cells’ ability to detect time and distance is unexpected. “And I think it’s important,” Frank says. The growing to-do list of grid cells shows that the brain’s navigational system is surprisingly flexible.

The discovery of grid cells, found in a part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, was recognized with the Nobel Prize last year (

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