A new type of brain cell has been identified that helps us with tasks like remembering where we left personal items. Vector Trace cells enable us to recall the location of belongings like mobile phones or car keys within the mental maps in our brains.
Dr Colin Lever at the University of Durham, who co-authored the study, believes the breakthrough could form the basis for better understanding of dementia. He said that further research into Vector Trace cells could explain why those with the disease suffer from memory loss.
Vector Trace cells are neurons that carry electrical pulses in the brain, transmitting information by way of electrical and chemical signals. Unlike other neurons, Vector Trace cells are responsible for encoding distances and directions to objects, as well as remembering them when they’re no longer visible.
Dr Lever said: “It looks like Vector Trace cells connect to creative brain networks which help us to plan our actions and imagine complex scenarios in our mind's eye. Vector Trace cells acting together likely allow us to recreate the spatial relationships between ourselves and objects, and between the objects in a scene, even when those objects are not directly visible to us.
“Vector Trace cells are a likely candidate for how our brain achieves this.”
The latest discovery builds on the work of Professor John O’Keefe, who first identified memory cells in the 1970s. He passed the baton on to professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser, who continued to work on the area in the 2000s and in 2014 won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for uncovering the positioning system.
Professor O’Keefe has welcomed the new research and explained that he has been impressed by the findings and the exhaustive nature of its analysis. He added that it sheds considerable light on this enigmatic brain structure, supporting previous suppositions that were yet to be proven.
Despite the fact that 850,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia, relatively little is known about the disease. The identification of Vector Trace cells and their importance could help to explain the condition and the more that is known, the likelier it is that treatments can be developed.
Dr Steven Poulter, co-author of the study, said: “Vector Trace cells should help progress the science of Alzheimer's disease. Vector Trace cells help me remember where my daughter buried her seashells – ie, three metres from my deckchair in that direction.”
The part of the brain where Vector Trace cells can be found is among the first to be affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s. This could be the reason why misplacing objects is one of the early warning signs prior to diagnosis.