Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Mouse in Matrix - How Mental Maps are Made

How do we create mental maps? In a story the New Scientist reports new development in the area of brain studies. The research was presented in nature in September 2009.
Over this question scientist have long speculated. The involved brain areas have long been identified, but the how was still subject for debate. Apparently the region in the brain is called hippocampus. The problem so far was that recording the activity required the subject’s head/brain needed to remain fairly stable and this is not possible for normal navigation. The New Scientist reported earlier initial findings related to the brains spatial navigation activities.
Reportedly after paying Quake II researchers came up with the idea of using a virtual reality surrounding for the experiment to record brain activity while navigating.
Researchers at Princeton University developed a Quake based VR environment for rodents as well as a special navigation ball on which the rodents could run (in a stabilizing harness to keep them relatively still) and navigate the VR maze. Basically they created a mini IMAX for the mouse, reports wired.com.
They were the able to scan the mouse’s brain activity as it learned to navigate the maze. Some treats along the way helped I guess.
However, there is little information on what they have actually found. At the moment the main interest seems to be the technique how they used to record the brain activity, so mainly the VR for mice set-up. It looks fancy though.

In these experiments scientists are not really interested in how and what the brain records and how participants (in this case mice) actually understand the maze or the environment they have navigated. Here they simply assume that this is taking place. They are talking about a mental map but are just looking at activity as ‘space’ is navigated. To some extend this is only implicit looking at how the memory and sense of place is building up. History is always biased by the fact that it is in the past and it is remembered back from a present state that might be rather different from the past and this influences the way the memory is recalled. Some sort of processing is taking place and the result is a weighted remembering. Through this the history has a present relevance, but is not ‘true’. In this respect the mental map as a review of the maze experience is probably a rather different case than the activity of navigating it. Let’s wait and see how scientist interpret the rodent’s sketch of the maze...

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