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How the brain tells where you’ve parked your car

After a hectic day of shopping in the mall, our memory guides us through a sea of vehicles in the parking lot to reach our car.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 21, 2009 21:36 IST

After a hectic day of shopping in the mall, our memory guides us through a sea of vehicles in the parking lot to reach our car. Now, researchers have identified the specific parts of the brain responsible for solving this problem.

The findings of the study have implications for understanding the functional significance of a prominent brain abnormality observed in neuropsychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia.

Researchers explained that different types of memory are formed in different parts of the brain.

The repetitive drive to work or to the supermarket requires well-learnt place memory and involves different brain mechanisms than returning to your car in a car park, which requires rapidly learnt memory of a novel place.

For the study, Tobias Bast of The University of Nottingham and colleagues aimed to investigate how such rapid place learning is translated into appropriate behaviour.

They focused on the hippocampus- an elongated, banana-shaped structure beneath the brain''s temporal lobe, which contributes to conscious memory.

The hippocampus is especially important for the rapid learning of the ever-changing aspects of our everyday experiences.

Scientists already know of a much-studied property of individual hippocampal neurons in rats—their striking ability to hone activity to certain places – known as place-cell firing.

This means that the hippocampus rapidly ''learns'' and then codes for specific places.

However, till date, researchers have not paid much attention to the way this rapid place learning is translated into behaviour.

In the new study, the researchers identified the part of the hippocampus that is responsible for this learning-behaviour translation.

They found that the critical part is the ''intermediate'' or middle part of the hippocampus, which combines links to accurate visuo-spatial information — like the position of a car in a car park — with links to behavioural control necessary for returning to that car after a period of time.

Bast is hoping to expand on these discoveries by studying how aberrant hippocampal activity that characterises many neuropsychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, contributes to symptoms.

The study is published in the latest issue of PLoS Biology.

First Published: Apr 21, 2009 21:35 IST