Laser beams give neuroscientists new insights about brain’s ‘inner GPS’ system in mice study

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Scientists have found a way to mentally teleport mice to a different location by stimulating a neuron in their brain. The team used laser beams in order to reactivate the cells.

The researchers used light to read and write electrical activity in the brain. The mice were given a reward at a place which they saved as memories inside their ‘place cells’ (a type of neuron). Using two light based experiments, the scientists activated the same cells and used memories of this place to make the mice feel and act as if it was back at the place of being rewarded.

The research was conducted by a group of neuroscientists at the University College London (UCL) and the results have been published in the journal Cell. Explaining how the entire experiment came about, a press note from UCL said that the team had used two optics based technologies.

Many processes in the human brain remain a mystery to neuroscientists.

“First, they engineered neurons to express genetically encoded calcium sensors, which allow cells to light up when they are active. Second, they expressed light-sensitive ‘optogenetic’ proteins in the same neurons, allowing them to activate specific cells with beams of laser light”.

By combining these two techniques, they were able to conduct targeted activation of the place cells of the mice. These cells located in the hippocampus, the area in the brain responsible for memory and learning, normally get active when the mice are in a new area and in the lookout for new memory. When the cells were artificially activated, the mice got “mentally teleported” and felt like they were back at the place where they had saved those memories.

The statement observed that “place cell stimulation” was enough to retrieve the memory of the rewarded location in the mouse so that it started looking for the reward at the new location. UCL noted that it was the “first demonstration of how the activation of place cells enables us to retrieve memories of our environment and helps us to navigate”.

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