QBI researchers discover 'inner compass' in the human brain

30 Sep 2010

If you have ever lost your sense of direction in an unfamiliar place, then researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute may be able to help.

They have discovered that a person’s ability to find their way is learned gradually and that the brain eventually becomes tuned to key landmarks in the new environment.

Dr Oliver Baumann, who led the study, had volunteers learn to navigate to landmarks around a computer-generated maze over several days. He then measured the volunteers’ brain activity as they viewed each of the landmarks in isolation.

“The brain acts like a compass, with different neurons firing depending on the direction people think they are heading,” Dr Baumann said.

In the research, published in today’s edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor people’s brain activity as they carried out the computerised testing.

The neuroscientists found that a small area in the parietal cortex, located toward the back of the brain, provides critical information about the direction in which a person is heading.

“Here we have evidence in a normal, healthy human population that there is a dedicated cluster of neurons that encodes our sense of direction,” fellow researcher Professor Jason Mattingley said.

“If this brain region is damaged it can severely disrupt a person’s ability to navigate in new situations. Such damage is common in stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. People haven’t made this link before – previously it was just a clinical anecdote.”

He predicted clinicians could eventually use navigational tests, such as those created for this study, as an early probe for the onset dementia.

“Our research suggests that one of the important cognitive functions we should be testing in people with suspected dementia is their sense of direction.”

There might even be scope to test whether men’s sense of direction really is better than women’s.

“It is often suggested that females are poorer at navigation than males, but scientific evidence for this is controversial. Our approach could provide an objective test by revealing whether male and female brains respond differently during navigation tasks,” Professor Mattingley said.


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Notes to the Editor:


Dr Oliver Bauman is a Research Fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute in Professor Jason Mattingley’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. As part of an ARC Thinking Systems Project ‘Navigating Real and Conceptual Spaces’ he is conducting experiments to gain a better understanding of the cognitive and neural processes involved in human spatial navigation.


Professor Jason Mattingley was appointed as Foundation Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at The University of Queensland in January 2007. This is a joint appointment between the Queensland Brain Institute and the School of Psychology. He has also held positions at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the University of Cambridge, UK. Professor Mattingley’s research is directed toward understanding the neural and cognitive mechanisms that underlie selective attention.


The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) was established as a research institute of the University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operating out of a new $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 28 Principal Investigators with strong international reputations. QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.