A group of researchers from the University of California studied the navigation mechanism of rats. To do this, they put the rodents in a virtual maze and watched the neurons in their hippocampus. According to scientists, the results of the experiment will help in the development of new treatments for neurological diseases such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. The full text of the study can be read in the journal Nature.

As part of the experiment, scientists put rats on treadmills that were in boxes. Images were projected onto their walls, which created the illusion of a labyrinth. The rodents had to pass it and take the “reward” – sugar water. To find it, they had to take into account their own position in space and the distance between themselves and objects around. Scientists have also conducted a series of experiments on individuals to understand how the response of neurons in the hippocampus changes as they explore the maze.

The hippocampus is a part of the brain responsible for spatial orientation and short-term memory. It contains the so-called neurons of the place that help us remember the environment. The hippocampus is also the first region of the brain to be impaired by Alzheimer’s or other diseases associated with memory loss, says Jason Moore, a former University of California research fellow and lead author of the study.

“So it’s important to understand its capabilities, flexibility and boundaries,” he adds.

As the results showed, the neurons encrypted information about the position in space, the angle of the body in relation to the “prize”, the direction and distance that was covered. Scientists consider this an important finding, because it was previously thought that the hippocampus was only responsible for the position in which the body was located. They also noticed that neurons better and more reliably remember the path through the maze as they gain experience.

In the future, Jason Moore plans to conduct similar experiments on rats and people with memory impairments. This will help clarify the effectiveness of virtual reality tests for early diagnosis and study the benefits of treatments.