As COVID cases rise, physically distancing yourself from other people has never been more important. Now a new UCLA study reveals how your brain navigates places and monitors someone else in the same location.
Published Dec. 23 in Nature, the findings suggest that our brains generate a common code to mark where other people are in relation to ourselves.
“We studied how our brain reacts when we navigate a physical space — first alone and then with others,” said senior author Nanthia Suthana, the Ruth and Raymond Stotter Chair in Neurosurgery and an assistant professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
“Our results imply that our brains create a universal signature to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” added Suthana, whose laboratory studies how the brain forms and recalls memories.
Suthana and her colleagues observed epilepsy patients whose brains had been surgically implanted earlier with electrodes to control their seizures. The electrodes resided in the medial temporal lobe, the brain center linked to memory and suspected to regulate navigation, much like a GPS device.
“Earlier studies have shown that low-frequency brain waves by neurons in the medial temporal lobe help rodents keep track of where they are as they navigate a new place,” said first author Matthias Stangl, a postdoctoral scholar in Suthana’s lab. “We wanted to investigate this idea in people — and test whether they could also monitor others near them — but were hampered by existing technology.”
Using a $3.3 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative, Suthana’s lab invented a special backpack containing a computer that wirelessly connects to brain electrodes. This enabled her to study research subjects as they moved freely instead of lying still in a brain scanner or hooked up to a recording device.
In this experiment, each patient wore the backpack and was instructed to explore an empty room, find a hidden spot and remember it for future searches. While they walked, the backpack recorded their brain waves, eye movements and paths through the room in real time.
As the participants searched the room, their brain waves flowed in a distinctive pattern, suggesting that each person’s brain had mapped out the walls and other boundaries. Interestingly, the patients’ brain waves also flowed in a similar manner when they sat in a corner of the room and watched someone else approach the location of the hidden spot.