Paul Biegler

Paul Biegler is a Eureka-Prize winning journalist, philosopher and doctor writing on all things health and science

The tour guide in our brain


Researchers find specific neurons that map memories.

Researchers have uncovered a new class of brain cell that acts like the red pin on a Google map to tell you where you found things on past journeys.

These neurons, dubbed memory-trace cells, are the place markers that record whether you had that mouth-watering gelati opposite the Trevi Fountain or just up the road from the Pantheon.

On a more sombre note, they are clustered in a part of the brain that takes an early hit in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and may well explain the appalling degradation of memory seen in that illness.

To unearth these very special neurons, the researchers, led by biomedical engineer Joshua Jacobs from Columbia University in the US, devised a clever video game, albeit one unlikely to rival Fortnite as a teen meme.

Players ride a trolley along a road bounded on each side by a brick wall which is divvied up into grey, blue and brown segments that act as reference points.

On the first run-through the player has to press a button when they reach an object, in one case an antique writing desk that could be a prop in a Stephen King spine tingler.

But it’s on the second pass that things get really interesting. This time the player travels the same road with the desk taken away – the task is to press the button when they reach the point where they think the desk was.

None of this would be out of the ordinary if the gamer was just your average punter. Jacobs’ players were, however, in a class of their own.

Read the full story in Cosmos magazine here

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