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Satellite navigation shuts down part of the human brain

GPS not only makes it easier for us to reach our destination, but it also makes our brain less fatigued. Researchers from University College London have shown that using satellite navigation switches off two important brain regions: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

For their study, the British scientists tracked brain activity in 24 drivers. During the study, the participants drove in a special simulator around one of the districts of central London. The researchers studied activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for memory and navigation, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning and decision-making.

They also created a map of a maze of London streets to understand how these brain regions respond. While the volunteers were moving completely oriented, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex showed a surge of activity. This brain activity was greater the more streets the subjects had to choose from. Entering an intersection of seven streets increased activity in the participants’ brains. In contrast, no activity was observed when study participants used GPS satellite navigation.

The findings support a model in which the hippocampus simulates travel along possible routes and the prefrontal cortex helps plan which route will get us to our destination. When we use satellite navigation, which tells us how to get around, these parts of the brain don’t respond to the street grid. It’s as if our brain turns off interest in the streets around us.

An earlier study conducted at the same university showed changes in the structure of the brains of London cab drivers learning the city’s topography. A more developed grey matter in the posterior hippocampus was observed. The results of the new study suggest that cab drivers’ use of satellite navigation does not engage their hippocampi.

The team also analyzed street networks in major cities around the world to get an idea of how easy they might be to navigate. London, with its complex network of small streets, appears to be particularly taxing on the hippocampus. On the other hand, navigating Manhattan in New York City may require much less mental effort. Thanks to the grid-like layout, you can only go straight, left or right at most intersections.

Researchers plan to work with smart technology companies, developers and architects to clean up urban spaces and make them easier to navigate. This could make a difference, especially when it comes to the location of hospitals or elder care centers, where people with dementia symptoms may have difficulty navigating. The link between the structure of cities and behavior has been around since the 1980s, but this is the first study to reveal the impact of this structure on the human brain.

This research looks at the layout of a city or building and how memory systems in the brain are likely to respond.

These findings are described in the article entitled „Hippocampal and prefrontal processing of network topology to simulate the future” published in the journal Nature Communications, 21.03.2017; (Authors: Javadi A.H., Emo B., Howard L.R., Zisch F.E., Yu Y., Knight R., Silva J.P., Spiers H.J.) DOI:10.1038/ncomms14652. Translation was done with the assistance of DeepL translator.