Bat brains built for navigation


They found that both in random exploration and during targeted navigation, such as a foraging task, bats retain a detailed spatial memory of both the environment and the paths they traveled. Trials also revealed that bats also have spatial awareness of their future location.

“We have neurons that all fire at the same time, but that represent different parts of a larger pathway,” Dotson says. “So it represents not just the present, but the past, the present and the future.”

Being able to plot their position over time with this natural GPS system is one of bats’ greatest survival tools, helping them find food and escape predators.

Study notes can assess the relevance of different types of past, present, and future experiences in different ways. For example, in a survival scenario such as “monkeys jumping between tree branches or people driving cars or skiing downhill at high speeds,” future information may be most important to survival.

“The bat must plan both locally and in the future to be successful in its hunting behavior,” says Melville Wohlgemuth, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Batlab. “These are brain processes that are also relevant to our lives.”

Studying species other than ourselves has long been a hallmark of neuroscience, and studying the hippocampus of bats may give scientists more insight into how certain diseases affect our own brains.

For example, learning more about bats could change our perspective on Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder that gradually destroys cognitive function and memory. Alzheimer’s patients have trouble navigating new routes or new locations intuitively, even if they’ve encountered it several times.


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