When moving through a city, people often use notable or familiar landmarks to help them navigate. Landmarks provide us with information about where we are and where we need to go next. But despite the ease with which we – and most other animals – use landmarks to find our way around, it remains unclear exactly how the brain makes this possible.
One area that seems to have a key role is the retrosplenial cortex, which is located deep within the back of the brain in humans. This area becomes more active when animals use visual landmarks to navigate. It is also one of the first brain regions to be affected in Alzheimer's disease, which may help to explain why patients with this condition can become lost and disoriented, even in places they have been many times before.
To find out how the retrosplenial cortex supports navigation, Fischer et al. measured its activity in mice exploring a virtual reality world. The mice ran through simulated corridors in which visual landmarks indicated where hidden rewards could be found. The activity of most neurons in the retrosplenial cortex was most strongly influenced by the mouse’s position relative to the landmark; for example, some neurons were always active 10 centimeters after the landmark.
In other experiments, when the landmarks were present but no longer indicated the location of a reward, the same neurons were much less active. Fischer et al. also measured the activity of the neurons when the mice were running with nothing shown on the virtual reality, and when they saw a landmark but did not run. Notably, the activity seen when the mice were using the landmarks to find rewards was greater than the sum of that recorded when the mice were just running or just seeing the landmark without a reward, making the “landmark response” an example of so-called supralinear processing.
Fischer et al. showed that visual centers of the brain send information about landmarks to retrosplenial cortex. But only the latter adjusts its activity depending on whether the mouse is using that landmark to navigate. These findings provide the first evidence for a “landmark code” at the level of neurons and lay the foundations for studying impaired navigation in patients with Alzheimer's disease. By showing that retrosplenial cortex neurons combine different types of input in a supralinear fashion, the results also point to general principles for how neurons in the brain perform complex calculations.