Rats ‘dream’ paths to a brighter future: study

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Published: June 29, 2015 9:55:55 PM

When rats rest, their brains simulate journeys to a desired future such as a tasty treat, according to a new study.

When rats rest, their brains simulate journeys to a desired future such as a tasty treat, according to a new study.

The researchers monitored brain activity in rats, first as the animals viewed food in a location they could not reach, then as they rested in a separate chamber, and finally as they were allowed to walk to the food.

The activity of specialised brain cells involved in navigation suggested that during the rest the rats simulated walking to and from food that they had been unable to reach.

The study, published in the journal eLife, could help to explain why some people with damage to a part of the brain called the hippocampus are unable to imagine the future.

“During exploration, mammals rapidly form a map of the environment in their hippocampus,” said senior author Dr Hugo Spiers from the University College London.

“During sleep or rest, the hippocampus replays journeys through this map which may help strengthen the memory. It has been speculated that such replay might form the content of dreams.

“Whether or not rats experience this brain activity as dreams is still unclear, as we would need to ask them to be sure! Our new results show that during rest the hippocampus also constructs fragments of a future yet to happen.

“Because the rat and human hippocampus are similar, this may explain why patients with damage to their hippocampus struggle to imagine future events,” said Spiers.

In the experiment, animals were individually placed on a straight track with a T-junction ahead. Access to the junction as well as the left and right hand arms beyond it was prevented by a transparent barrier.

One of the arms had food at the end, the other side was empty. After observing the food the rats were put in a sleep chamber for an hour.

Finally after the barrier was removed, the animals were returned to the track and allowed to run across the junction and on to the arms.

During the rest period, the data showed that place cells that would later provide an internal map of the food arm were active.

Cells representing the empty arm were not activated in this way. This indicates that the brain was simulating or preparing future paths leading to a desired goal.

“What’s really interesting is that the hippocampus is normally thought of as being important for memory, with place cells storing details about locations you’ve visited,” said co-lead author Dr Freyja Olafsdottir.

“What’s surprising here is that we see the hippocampus planning for the future, actually rehearsing totally novel journeys that the animals need to take in order to reach the food,” said Olafsdottir.

The results suggest that the hippocampus plans routes that have not yet happened as well as recording those that have already happened, but only when there is a motivational cue such as food.

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