Space

How does the brain map space and help us to navigate the world? John O’Keefe, and May-Britt and Edvard Moser were recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their groundbreaking discoveries of cells that constitute the brain’s SatNav. The striking quality of so-called place and grid cells in the hippocampal formation is that they signal the animal’s position in its environment, but how do they support memory and guide decision making?

By combining cutting-edge functional neuroimaging with virtual-reality techniques, we have demonstrated that similar spatial maps exist in the human brain. Our team uses proxy measures of cellular aspects of cognition in combination with the best high-resolution MRI scans. Our aim is to unravel the fine-grained, layer-specific neural mechanisms underlying successful wayfinding and its breakdown in neurodegenerative diseases and normal ageing. We are also excited by the question of how the specific structure of the brain (e.g. laminar organisation; entorhinal substructures) constrains its functional properties.

Memory

Memory is at the heart of our personality: the myriad of snapshots of our daily experiences have a pervasive and enduring influence on the self. Episodic memory permits us to live beyond the here and now by enabling us to recall events which we have experienced in the past. But how are these memories organised in the brain? What are the governing coding principles?

Our overarching model uniting our manifold experimental approaches posits that memories are not stored in isolation but are rather represented in highly dynamic, hierarchical mnemonic networks and possibly clustered in specialised hippocampal processing units. These mental maps allow us to dynamically integrate previously unrelated information and to continuously update stored representations.

Discoveries are only made possible through innovative technologies. In this ambitious research program, we leverage the best virtual reality technologies to generate life-simulating cognitive tasks to mimic everyday episodic experiences and decoding techniques for rapid readout of mental maps. In the long run, this approach will be transformed into a framework that potentially allows us to edit our memories.

Knowledge

In our everyday experience (e.g. witnessing an accident), we interpret incoming information against the backdrop of pre-existing knowledge, generalised across multiple encounters: We know what an accident is, which aspects it entails (i.e. ‘leading to traffic jam’, ‘subsequent media coverage’) and how we need to react (i.e. ‘provide first aid’, ‘call the police’). But how does the brain assemble our rich inventory of knowledge and how does it assign conceptual meaning to novel information?

We investigate knowledge acquisition by probing semantic networks in the brain and by tracking the emergence of factual information in neural systems. A detailed understanding of the fundamental coding principles of our mental maps for knowledge could in the future allow us to inform neural user models for brain-computer interfaces and help us to accelerate learning – with wider implications for real-world settings, such as the classroom and information technology.

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Our funding

Our research is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-Vidi 452-12-009; NWO-Gravitation 024-001-006; NWO-MaGW 406-14-114; NWO-MaGW 406-15-291), the Kavli Foundation, the Centre of Excellence scheme of the Research Council of Norway – Centre for Biology of Memory and Centre for Neural Computation, The Egil and Pauline Braathen and Fred Kavli Centre for Cortical Microcircuits, the National Infrastructure scheme of the Research Council of Norway – NORBRAIN, and the European Research Council (ERC Starting Grant and ERC Consolidator Grant: ERC-StG RECONTEXT 261177; ERC-CoG GEOCOG 724836).