Flying in all directions

When we navigate through our environment, do we track mostly in two dimensions or in three? Clearly, we can move in all three dimensions, but does our internal map relate to the vertical direction in the same way as it does to the horizontal axes on the ground?

That question has not yet been definitively answered, but recent research on flying bats shows us what three-dimensional navigation looks like in the brain.

It turns out that fruit bats also mostly navigate in two dimensions, since quite a bit of their flying time involves getting from their caves straight to their favorite fruit trees. But once they get to a tree, they switch to three-dimensional flitting patterns that cover the entire volumetric space around the tree.

To gain some insight into the workings of the bats’ internal mapping system, neurobiologist Dr. Nahum Ulanovsky attempted a feat no one had tried before: seeing into a bats’ brain while it was on the wing. His team spent several years developing a tiny device with electrodes that could measure neuronal activity in the bats’ brains while allowing them to fly naturally. They then let their subjects swoop and dive around some “fruit trees” – poles dangling cups filled with fruit – up inside their oh-so-cool, fully-equipped bat lab.

Image: Dr Yossi Yovel in the lab of Dr. Nachum Ulanovsky, Weizmann Institute of Science

It seems that bat neurons, at least, relate to all three dimensions equally. Their internal maps – as well as ours – are plotted in groups of neurons called place cells. These cells respond to specific locations in the spatial environment. As the bat moves though space, the corresponding place cells send off “you are here” signals. By comparing the bats’ actual locations with the neurons’ signals, the researchers found that each place cell responds to a spherical space – i.e., it has the same resolution in all directions.

Do human place cells map a similar space, or are ours flatter? On the one hand, says Ulanovsky, our nearest relatives probably have place cells very much like those of bats, since they navigate in three-dimensional space through the tree canopy. On the other hand, since we basically walk around in two dimensions, our up-and-down axis may have lost some of its resolution over time, making our internal mapping closer to that of animals that crawl rather than those that fly. This, says Ulanovsky, is a fascinating open question that awaits further experiments.

More like this

Not everyone gets their research written about by this week’s Nobel Prize winners: All mammals face the challenge of navigating in complex, three-dimensional (3D) environments, whether they are swinging from branch-to-branch in forests or burrowing underground tunnels. How does the brain maintain…
Dr. Nachum Ulanovsky of the Weizmann Institute and Prof. Ran Nathan and Asaf Tsoar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have captured live fruit bats and glued tiny GPS transmitters to their backs, then driven the bats overnight to a site some 80 kilometers away and rappelled into the bats' caves…
This week's new Weizmann science stories are on ants and bats. Two different models for investigating human behavior? Yes, but not exactly in the ways you might imagine, and so much more than that. Dr. Ofer Feinerman, the "ant scientist," is a new member of the Physics Faculty. In his graduate…
In a (very) loose tie-in with the recent release of the Dark Knight, it's Bat Weekend at Not Exactly Rocket Science, where I'll be reposting a few old but relevant pieces. If you were a biologist looking for astounding innovations in nature, you could do much worse than to study bats. They are…

I wonder if it differs slightly from person to person. Would be nice to know why some people are great at navigation, and others are hopeless.

Place cells are only part of the story (see the last piece we wrote on Ulanovsky's research), so the question might be whether there are differences in the place cells, themselves, in the arrangements of these cells, or in communication networks between place cells and other neurons.

Greetings! I've been following your web site for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Lubbock Texas! Just needed to mention keep up the great work!

By acne treatment (not verified) on 07 May 2013 #permalink

Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read something like this before. So great to discover somebody with some authentic suggestions on this topic. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is one factor that's wanted on the internet, someone with somewhat originality. useful occupation for bringing 1 thing new towards the internet!

By 手機殼 (not verified) on 15 Jun 2013 #permalink

I'd be curious to know if the study included people who fly airplanes or work in 0 gravity. Do their brains get more practice in the up and down dimension? Would they be more similar to bats because their orientation is different and/or because they "practice" more in the 3rd. dimension?

Verily, the blessings of His Noodliness shall devolve on thee and thy progeny whom thou schoolest within the ways from the Sauce. For thou shalt righteously provide wisdom to the mind, and carbohydrates towards the body, by following the path of the Spaghedeity, and thy children shall learn the joys of fettucini and tiramisu, and shall rise up and call thee Blessed.. . RAmen!

By Samsung手機殼 (not verified) on 22 Jun 2013 #permalink

I am curious to locate out what weblog system you're using? I'm getting some minor security problems with my latest website and I'd like to discover something more safe. Do you've any options?

By 行動電源 (not verified) on 01 Jul 2013 #permalink

Like almost every blogger, we use wordpress.

Some genuinely good and useful information on this web site, besides I believe the layout has received fantastic features.

By 行動電源 (not verified) on 06 Jul 2013 #permalink