Scientists have discovered a new kind of brain cell which will help us to understand how we remember where we left things such as our car keys or mobile phones.
Damage to these cells may help explain memory loss in certain kinds of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers have claimed.
While the existence of GPS-like brain cells, which can store maps of the places we have been, was already widely known, this discovery shows there is also a type of brain cell sensitive to the distance and direction of objects and that can store object locations on these maps.
The research, led by Dr Steven Poulter and Dr Colin Lever, from Durham University, and co-directed by Dr Thomas Wills, from University College London, found that Vector Trace cells remember where things were located.
As an example, Dr Poulter said: “Vector Trace cells help me remember where my daughter buried her seashells, i.e. three metres from my deckchair in that direction.”
Dr Wills added: “Storing distance and direction data in memory is essential for mental maps that can allow us to navigate to remembered goals, and Vector Trace cells are a likely candidate for how our brain achieves this.”
Dr Lever added: “It looks like Vector Trace cells connect to creative brain networks which help us to plan our actions and imagine complex scenarios in our mind’s eye.
“Vector trace cells acting together likely allow us to recreate the spatial relationships between ourselves and objects, and between the objects in a scene, even when those objects are not directly visible to us.”
Brain cells that make up the biological equivalent of a satellite-navigation system were first discovered in the 1970s by Professor John O’Keefe.
Professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser made further discoveries in the 2000s, shedding light on one of neuroscience’s great mysteries – how we know where we are in space – and won them the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Prof O’Keefe, Nobel Laureate, was impressed with the latest research, saying: “Not only have they discovered a new type of brain cell, the Vector Trace cell, but their analysis of its properties is exhaustive and compelling.
“This discovery sheds considerable light on this important but enigmatic structure of the brain, supporting the idea that it is indeed the memory system we have always believed it to be.”
Vector cells should help our knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Poulter said: “The discovery of Vector Trace cells is particularly important as the area of the brain they are found in is one of the first to be attacked by brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, which could explain why a common symptom and key early ‘warning sign’ in Alzheimer’s is the losing or misplacement of objects.”
Professor Lord Robert Winston added: “This fascinating work on Vector Trace cells uncovers further levels of our memory, so often lost with brain damage and ageing.
“This discovery gives a possible insight into certain kinds of dementia which are now of massive importance.”
He added: “The idea that loss or change of such cells might be an early biomarker of disease could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective therapies for one of the most intractable medical conditions.”