A recent study has revealed that rats might be able to dream or at least to plan future events while they rest, that improve their memory and orientation skills.
The study was conducted by the University College London and it involved the close study of the brain activity of rats in different situations. First, the rats were shown food while they found themselves enclosed in a chamber that had a transparent wall, so that they could see the food through it, but not actually reach it.
Then, the rats were put in another chamber to rest and finally, they were released in a specialized chamber where they actually got to reach the food. In all three phases, their brain activity was monitored.
The corridor where the food was located in the first phase was T-shaped and the food was located on the right side of the T, at the top of the corridor, leaving its left side empty. The rats could observe this corridor in the first phase, from the separate chamber with the transparent wall and it seemed that specialized cells called place cells light up on the brain monitor. The hippocampus of the rats had constructed a map of the T-shaped corridor.
Then, when the rats were put to rest, the scientists observed that the same regions in the hippocampus lit up again. Taking into account that this region of the brain is also responsible for planning future events, the scientists concluded that the brain activity that their monitors detected corresponded to the rats creating imaginary routes in their brain on their maps.
In the third phase of the study when the rats were released in the T-shaped corridor that contained the food, the same part of their brains reacted and this enabled them to direct themselves correctly towards the food.
“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.” concluded Dr. Hugo Spiers, the lead author of the study.
These “fragments of the future” seem to be different scenarios simulated by the brain in order to get to the place of interest on the map. In the case of the rats, this place of interest was obviously the food. This process seems to be helpful to training the memory, as the scientists explain. The place cells are able to store extensive information regarding the places that the animal passed through and those it wanted to remember, in this case, the T-shaped corridor.
Then, while the animal is resting, the place cells flare up and provide the information that the hippocampus needs in order to create its own map. Then the hippocampus creates different routes on this map, as possible future plans, thus improving the memory of the animal.
The University College London was published in the scientific journal eLife. The scientists have expressed their interest in continuing this study by investigating the link between these rehearsal routes that the hippocampus creates towards the object of interest and how the animals actually act in the neurally visualized situation.
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