Organizing conceptual knowledge in humans with a gridlike code

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Science  17 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6292, pp. 1464-1468
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0941

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Coding abstract concepts in the brain

Grid cells are thought to provide the neuronal code that underlies spatial knowledge in the brain. Grid cells have mostly been studied in the context of path integration. However, recent theoretical studies have suggested that they may have a broader role in the organization of general knowledge. Constantinescu et al. investigated whether the neural representation of concepts follows a structure similar to the representation of space in the entorhinal cortex. Several brain regions, including the entorhinal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, showed gridlike neural representation of conceptual space.

Science, this issue p. 1464


It has been hypothesized that the brain organizes concepts into a mental map, allowing conceptual relationships to be navigated in a manner similar to that of space. Grid cells use a hexagonally symmetric code to organize spatial representations and are the likely source of a precise hexagonal symmetry in the functional magnetic resonance imaging signal. Humans navigating conceptual two-dimensional knowledge showed the same hexagonal signal in a set of brain regions markedly similar to those activated during spatial navigation. This gridlike signal is consistent across sessions acquired within an hour and more than a week apart. Our findings suggest that global relational codes may be used to organize nonspatial conceptual representations and that these codes may have a hexagonal gridlike pattern when conceptual knowledge is laid out in two continuous dimensions.

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