The human brain may have its own GPS system, according to new research funded by the Wellcome Trust.
The study found that one part of the brain calculates the straight line to a destination but during travel a different area computes the distance along the path to get there.
Dr Hugo Spiers and his team at UCL came up with their findings by using film footage to recreate the streets of Soho in London inside an MRI scanner.
Those taking part in the study were asked to navigate through the district while their brain activity was monitored.
They found that activity in the entorhinal cortex, a region essential for navigation and memory, was used in working out the straight-line distance but the posterior hippocampus, known for its role in navigation and memory, became active when keeping track of the path.
Dr Spiers said: “Our results indicate that is is the daily demand of processing paths in their posterior hippocampus that leads to the impressive expansion in their grey matter.
“These findings help us understand the mechanisms by which the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex guide navigation. The research is also a substantial step towards understanding how we use our brain in real world environments, of which we currently know very little.”
Dr John Williams, Head of Clinical Activities, Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: “These findings provide insight into the underlying biology of mental health conditions which affect our memory.
“The hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are among the first regions to be damaged in the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease and these results provide some explanation as to why such patients struggle to find their way and become lost. Combining these findings with clinical work could enable medical benefits in the future.”