Mapping Out the Most Complex Terrain: The Mind

How do humans navigate their surroundings? Understanding this mechanism could help treat conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Biomedical engineer Manu Madhav wants to know how animals and humans navigate their surroundings. To learn more about this complex task, he leads the Neural Circuits for Computation, Cognition and Control Lab.

“We look at biological navigation, so we we look at how animals and humans navigate and how they create representations or maps in their brain, how they fuse information from their surroundings in order to create these maps, and how they use these maps in order to navigate their environment,” says Madhav, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia.

Understanding how the brain creates these representations of space could advance applications in robotics and human health. But it also gives us a better understanding of how the brain itself works.

“The brain is an extremely complex machine and we as neuroscientists are just starting to scratch the surface of that type of complexity. We’re talking about billions of neurons talking to each other to through trillions of synapses,” adds Madhav.

That complex biological wiring makes it difficult to trace behavioural changes in navigation back to the cells and circuits that cause them. This is a big challenge that Madhav hopes to overcome.

“The one thing that I’m really excited about, and our sort of long-term plan, is to try to see how navigation degrades with aging and with neurodegeneration,” says Madhav.

When people have conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, the neurons in their brains start to degrade or die. As a result, the connections in the brain start to break. Memory and navigation are both affected by these changes.

Targeting navigational skills could be used to diagnose or monitor brain changes, but it could also be used to help patients cope.

“We are designing experiments involving humans navigating in virtual reality and comparing that with how a rat would navigate and how a robot would navigate,” explains Madhav.

“And this means that we might be able to use navigation as a test for dementia as well as a tool for intervention. So maybe we can design a virtual reality game that you can play on your smartphone that helps you cope with cognitive impairment better.”

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Manu Madhav is an engineer and roboticist turned neuroscientist who joined the University of British Columbia from Johns Hopkins University (JHU), where he earned his graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and Robotics. He then became an Assistant Research Scientist at JHU under the mentorship of James Knierim and Noah Cowan. His research focused on quantifying aspects of spatial navigation in rats by recording place cells and head direction cells, leading to the development of a custom augmented reality system that resulted in the discovery of the recalibration of the hippocampal path integrator by visual landmarks.

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