Pilots are trained to guard against vertigo: a sudden loss of the sense of vertical direction that renders them unable to tell “up” from “down” and sometimes even leads to crashes.
Why does vertigo happen? Neuroscientists have suggested it is due to a malfunction in a sort of “3D compass” in the brain.
To find out where the brain’s 3D system is located, Prof. Nachum Ulanovsky of the Department of Neurobiology investigated one of nature’s most accomplished pilots: the bat. Much of his research involves bats precisely because their brains have evolved to navigate in the 3D world. In a finding published in Nature in December, he showed, for the first time, that the mammalian brain has a special network for dealing with the third dimension of that compass.
In conducting the study, he fitted Egyptian fruit bats with microelectrodes and their own video tracking devices, so that he and his team could see how the bats’ brain cells responded as they freely flew around or roosted upside down. The team found that the cells that govern 2D, horizontal, orientation were located in a separate part of the brain from the one where the 3D orientation cells operated. These 3D cells apparently “compute” the head’s orientation in a way that can be described by an exceptionally efficient system of mathematical coordinates. Of course, the bat is unaware of the complex computations going on in its brain—it simply points its head and flies off into the night.
The study won accolades from Prof. May- Britt Moser, a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of a two-dimensional navigation system in the brains of rats. In an opinion piece that accompanied the article in Nature, she wrote, “Now this blueprint can be applied to other species that experience 3D in a more limited sense.” The ‘bat-nav’ system is, she continued, “surprising - but also surprising in its beauty.”
Prof. Nachum Ulanovsky is funded by Adelis Foundation, European Research Council, Lulu P. & David J. Levidow Fund for Alzheimers Diseases and Neuroscience Research, Harold and Faye Liss Foundation Mike and Valeria Rosenbloom through the Mike Rosenbloom Foundation.
Prof. Nachum Ulanovsky