A discovery at QBI has identified how little information the brain needs in order to navigate and accurately estimate location.

Research published in PLOS Computational Biology has reported the development of a startling theory that animal brains can use a memory map to determine locations without external cues such as sight, smell, touch and sound.

Dr Allen Cheung said that until now it had been incorrectly assumed that external input is needed for navigation within any environment.

“For example, if you are starting at a point of complete disorientation—by navigating with no sight, touch, smell or sound cues—the brain can draw on a previously-learned map and quite accurately estimate its location purely by self-motion cues such as walking,” he said.

This ability applies specifically to a particular shape of arena, which has one-fold rotational symmetry such as a classic kite or egg shape, all the brain needs to do is to compare its best orientation guess with a ‘mind map’ of the environment.

Dr Cheung said the motivation for doing the research was to understand how brains compute information.

“There are a lot of possibilities that arise from this research, but the parts of the brain believed to carry out these computations, as found by the recent Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, are significantly affected by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“These findings can now be tested in animals and humans to understand spatial computations, and we will be able to prove that both can develop and use a map built from self-motion cues.

“This work is important to highlight the plasticity of the brain, and its ability to gather a lot of information with very little input.”