Understanding how the brain’s visual and navigational system function together is one step closer, thanks to a new discovery made by University College London (UCL) researchers. Previously it was thought that the brain had two distinct systems that worked independently, one for vision and one for navigation. However, new research conducted by Dr Aman Saleem, Dr Efthymia Diamanti, Dr Julien Fournier, Professor Kenneth Harris and Professor Matteo Carandini, from UCL Brain Sciences, finds that two are in fact tightly interlinked. “Our surprising discovery is that ‘where’ you see an image changes visual activity. This means the same image is seen differently depending on where we are physically in the world,” said Dr Aman Saleem.

To test this theory, the researchers created a virtual reality environment involving two visually identical rooms in two different positions. They then used these rooms to investigate the visual and navigational systems of mice.

The expectation was that the purely visual neuron would respond in the same way to these landmarks, regardless of position in the environment. Instead, the results showed that the same image can be seen differently based on physical location. They found that the visual neurons responded solely or more strongly in one room than the other.

Vision plays a vital role in helping us to navigate and navigation is strongly driven by vision. It was previously believed that the brain had two separate systems that worked independently, one for vision and one for navigation. These results, instead, demonstrate that the visual system is profoundly influenced by the navigational system. Professor Carandini, GlaxoSmithKline/Fight for Sight Chair of Visual Neuroscience at UCL, said: “These findings challenge our previous understanding of how the brain uses vision to solve the complex problem of knowing where we are to help navigation. We thought that different areas of the brain were specialised to do specific things; for example, taking information and passing it to the next area, very much like an assembly line. Instead, this research has found that areas are working together as a team to process navigational information.”

Dr Saleem said one previous understanding of how the brain works is that different areas of the brain are specialised to do specific things. “For instance, they take information, process it in specific ways and pass it to the next area – very much like an assembly line. “However, our research finds that to process navigational information, the areas are instead working together as a team. This discovery therefore changes our understanding of how the brain uses vision to solve the complex problem of knowing where we are and to help navigation.”

According to the researchers, these findings are fundamental in understanding healthy brain functions and can help develop better strategies to tackle neurological diseases in the future. They also believe a better understanding of how the brain solves this navigational challenge could help to create artificial systems that mimic it, for example, to improve artificial intelligence in ‘self-driving’ cars.

Source: University College London and Fight for Sight