Scientists Identify Cells Involved in Correcting Errors During Spatial Navigation

Neurons become active when mice exploring a maze correct after making a wrong turn

An aerial view of a white maze
Image: cokada/iStock/Getty Images E+ Collection

At a glance:

  • Researchers identify a subset of neurons that become active when mice navigating a maze correct an error in orientation.
  • The neurons, located in the posterior parietal cortex, may play a role in helping the brain learn navigational routes.
  • The team is further investigating the role of these neurons during navigation and what they are doing in other brain regions where they are found.

During routine navigation in daily life, our brains use spatial mapping and memory to guide us from point A to point B. Just as routine: making a mistake in navigation that requires a course correction.

Now, researchers at Harvard Medical School have identified a specific group of neurons in a brain region involved in navigation that undergo bursts of activity when mice running a maze veer off course and correct their error.

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The findings, published July 19 in Nature, bring scientists a step closer to understanding how navigation works, while raising new questions. These questions include the specific role these neurons play during navigation, and what they are doing in other brain regions where they are found.

“Navigation has been studied a lot but, to our knowledge, this is the first time we’ve identified this type of error-correction signal,” said senior author Christopher Harvey, associate professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS. “I think this study adds a new direction where we can go with navigation research.”

Making a course correction

To understand navigation, the Harvey lab has been studying the posterior parietal cortex, a region near the back of the brain involved in spatial reasoning, as well as learning and planning movements. The cells that make up that region, the team said, have largely remained a black box.

“There are all these different cell types in that area, but when we started this project, we didn’t know much about what these cell types might be doing,” explained lead author Jonathan Green, a research fellow in neurobiology at HMS.

On the left, a black and white view of moving through the maze. On the right, a graph of neural activity over time.