As COVID cases increase, physical distancing from other people has never been more important. Now new UCLA research reveals how your brain navigates places and monitors someone else in the same location.
Posted on December 23rd in Nature, the findings suggest that our brain generates a common code that indicates where other people are relative to ourselves.
“We studied how our brains react when we move through physical space – first alone and then with others,” said senior author Nanthia Suthana, chair of neurosurgery at Ruth and Raymond Stotter and assistant professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
“Our results mean that our brain creates a universal signature so that we can put ourselves in someone’s shoes,” added Suthana, whose laboratory studies how the brain forms and recalls memories.
Suthana and her colleagues observed patients with epilepsy whose brains had previously been surgically implanted with seizure control electrodes. The electrodes were located in the medial temporal lobe, a brain center connected to memory and suspected of regulating navigation, similar to a GPS device.
“Previous studies have shown that low-frequency brain waves by neurons in the medial temporal lobe help rodents track where they are as they move to a new location,” said first author Matthias Stangl, a postdoctoral scientist at Suthan’s lab. “We wanted to explore this idea with people – and test if they could monitor others around them as well – but they were hampered by existing technology.”
Using a $ 3.3 million BRAIN award from the National Institutes of Health, Suthana’s lab invented a special backpack featuring a computer that connects wirelessly to brain electrodes. This allowed her to study research subjects while moving freely, instead of lying quietly in a brain scanner or connected to a recording device.
In this experiment, each patient carried a backpack and was instructed to explore an empty room, find a hidden place, and remember it for future searches. As they walked, the backpack recorded their brain waves, eye movements, and paths through the room in real time.
As participants searched the room, their brain waves flowed in a recognizable pattern, suggesting that each person’s brain drew walls and other boundaries. Interestingly, patients ’brain waves also flowed in a similar way when they sat in the corner of the room and watched someone else approach the site of the hidden spot.
The discovery implies that our brains produce the same pattern to keep track of where we and other people are in a shared environment.
Why is this important?
Everyday activities require us to constantly move around other people in the same place. Consider choosing the shortest airport security line, looking for space in a crowded parking lot, or avoiding bumping into someone on the dance floor. “
Nanthia Suthana, Assistant Professor of Psychology, UCLA College of Science and Assistant Professor of Bioengineering, Henry Samueli School of Engineering
In a secondary discovery, the UCLA team found that what we pay attention to can affect how our brain maps location. For example, patients ’brain waves flowed harder when they searched for a hidden place — or witnessed another person approaching a location — than when they simply explored a room.
“Our results support the idea that in certain mental states, this pattern of brain waves can help us recognize boundaries,” Stangl said. “In this case, it was when people were focused on the goal and chasing something.”
Future studies will explore how people’s brain patterns respond in more complex social situations, including outside the lab. The UCLA team made the backpack available to other researchers to expedite discoveries about the brain and brain disorders.
University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences