Molecular mechanisms that underlie spatial mapping in the brain

Anytime we venture into a new place, our brain’s built-in GPS immediately kicks in and begins to form a spatial map of our surroundings. Over days and even weeks, this map may be solidified as a memory that we can recall to help us navigate more easily whenever we return to that particular location.

Just how the brain forms these spatial maps is astoundingly complex — a process that involves an intricate molecular interplay across genes, proteins, and neural circuits to shape behavior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the precise steps of this multiplayer interaction have eluded neurobiologists.

Now, scientists, through a multilab collaboration within the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, have made a major advance toward understanding the molecular mechanisms that are involved in the creation of spatial maps in the brain.

The new study, conducted in mice and published Aug. 24 in Nature, establishes that a gene called Fos is a key player in spatial mapping, helping the brain use specialized navigation cells to form and maintain stable representations of the environment.

“This research connects across the different levels of understanding to make a pretty direct link between molecules and the function of circuits for behavior and memory,” said senior author Christopher Harvey, associate professor of neurobiology at HMS. “Here we can understand what’s actually underlying the formation and stability of spatial maps.”

If the findings translate into humans, they will provide crucial new information about how our brains construct spatial maps. Eventually, this knowledge could help scientists better understand what happens when this process breaks down, as it often does as a result of brain injury or neurodegeneration.

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