The brain can be made to “teleport” using lasers, a landmark study has found, as scientists are able to control our “inner GPS”.
Laser beams can be directed into the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory and learning, to stimulate neurons called “place cells”, the groundbreaking research on mice reveals.
Place cells become active when we enter a new environment and store that location in our memory.
By stimulating the cells which do not correspond with our environment, we can be “mentally teleported” to the location to which those cells are linked in memory.
This is the first study to show that place cell activity is behind the brain’s ability to retrieve memory and navigate.
Neuroscientists from University College London (UCL) put mice in one location and gave them a reward of sugar water.
The mice were then moved to a second location, and the scientists used laser beams to activate the place cells storing their memory of the first location.
As their memory of the first location was reactivated, the mice were “mentally teleported” to the first location – and tried to find the reward, believing they were in the first location rather than the second.
It is hoped the findings could help in the development of new therapies for sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which are characterised by memory problems.
Dr Nick Robinson, from UCL’s Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research and lead author of the study, said: “These results provide direct causal evidence that mice use the information represented by place cell activity to guide their behaviour.
“In other words, place cells really do tell the mouse where it is, and mice actually ‘listen’ to their place cells when they make decisions. This provides new insights about how memories are stored in the brain, as well as new tools for manipulating these memories to influence behaviour.
“Disorders of memory – such as in dementia and Alzheimer’s – represent a huge cost to society. This work may eventually lead to a better understanding of these diseases, as well as new targets for therapeutic intervention.”
Prof Michael Hausser, also from the UCL institute, added: “This study is a game-changer as it shows that we can use optical reading and writing of activity in specific neurons to manipulate memories, allowing us to better understand – and potentially improve – how neural circuit activity helps us to make decisions.”
The study was published in the journal Cell.