A Trace of Your Place

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Science  05 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6128, pp. 35-36
DOI: 10.1126/science.1237567

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How do you know where you are? How do you generate or remember a mental map of your surroundings? Spatial cognition arises from multiple neural systems in the brain that converge to provide this awareness. Teasing out the origin of brain signals that course through these networks is tremendously difficult because the number and nature of pathways in the brain that give rise to a particular signal—the afferent inputs—are often not known. This becomes even more complicated if one looks for connectivity along these pathways at the level of single neurons, the most elementary operating units in the brain, because of the thousands of connections a neuron can make with other neurons. On page 44 of this issue, Zhang et al. (1) tackle this question by identifying the afferent cells in the entorhinal cortex—a region associated with navigation and memory—that send signals to the hippocampus, specifically to “place cells,” neurons that become active in response to a specific location in an environment. The scheme that emerges establishes functional connectivity at an unprecedented level of detail.