Thursday, 25 April 2013

Neural Activity in Bats Measured In-Flight

Apr. 18, 2013 — Animals navigate and orient themselves to survive -- to find food and shelter or avoid predators, for example. Research conducted by Dr. Nachum Ulanovsky and research student Michael Yartsev of the Weizmann Institute's Neurobiology Department, published today in Science, reveals for the first time how three-dimensional, volumetric, space is perceived in mammalian brains. The research was conducted using a unique, miniaturized neural-telemetry system developed especially for this task, which enabled the measurement of single brain cells during flight.

The question of how animals orient themselves in space has been extensively studied, but until now experiments were only conducted in two-dimensional settings. These have found, for instance, that orientation relies on "place cells" -- neurons located in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory, especially spatial memory. Each place cell is responsible for a spatial area, and it sends an electrical signal when the animal is located in that area. Together, the place cells produce full representations of whole spatial environments. Unlike the laboratory experiments, however, the navigation of many animals in the real world, including humans, is carried out in three dimensions. But attempts to expand the scope of experiments from two to three dimensions had encountered difficulties.

One of the more famous efforts in this area was conducted by the University of Arizona and NASA, in which they launched rats into space (aboard a space shuttle). However, although the rats moved around in zero gravity, they ran along a set of straight, one-dimensional lines. Other experiments with three-dimensional projections onto two-dimensional surfaces did not manage to produce volumetric data, either. The conclusion was that in order to understand movement in three-dimensional, volumetric space, it is necessary to allow animals to move through all three dimensions -- that is, to research animals in flight.

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