How Our Brains Adapt

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Illustration by Esther Liu

Ladann Kiassat

Science and Technology Editor

The human brain adapts to changes in our environment faster than we realize. Researchers are aiming to identify the mechanism through which the human brain processes external stimuli, creating a connection between what we experience in real-time and the response of the experience in our brain.

This idea is explained by the research of Sung Soo Kim, a neuroscientist from UC Santa Barbara. Kim’s research focuses on a fundamental question of how our brain selects visual landmarks that the human brain uses to navigate through the world. 

In an interview with The Bottom Line, Kim explains how the ability of our brains to seamlessly navigate through the world is because of the brain’s ability to pick up cues from the external environment no matter the state of the current environment. 

“Imagine that you are in a room and the lights go off. Suddenly you aren’t able to see anything, but somehow, you are able to still find the door. This is the result of a mechanism in the brain that updates your sense of direction, giving you directions as you find your way to the door,” Kim explained. “This isn’t a usual sense of primary perception, for example, like taste, which is a physical perception rather a sense of perception your brain develops from your environment.”

“Kim’s research focuses on a fundamental question of how our brain selects visual landmarks that the human brain uses to navigate through the world.”

Kim explained that computational neuroscientists want to understand “the exact mechanism on how the brain picks one stimuli to guide our behavior in the context of navigation.” 

“There have been a lot of neuronal models trying to explain this mechanism, but they all had one problem in that the [models] had no proof as to why this [mechanism] occurred,” he said.

Kim’s lab uses green fluorescent protein to recognize which neurons of the fly’s brain are active during this process of navigation because the green fluorescent protein becomes brighter when the neuron is activated. 

This mechanism allows researchers to “study multiple parts of the brain,” while also “recording the activity that is observed” in the fly’s brain.

“[My lab] is able to record neuronal activity while simultaneously recording the fly’s external behavior, providing us with proof on why the mechanism occurs and where the compass neurons are located,” he explained.

In addition to scientific strides in understanding the mechanism of navigation, this research also gives us insight into what brain activity should look like, helping scientists draw conclusions on abnormalities of the brain that may be present. Noting the presence of a “mechanism gives [my lab] insight into what mechanisms shouldn’t be present” in the brain. “Understanding key physiological phenomenons in the brain allows neuroscientists to make conclusions about the effects of the absence of the physiological mechanism.”

Kim’s lab is currently in the stage of collecting data to figure out signal processing. This includes pinpointing what type of visual information each of the 12 visual neuron types Kim’s lab has identified is interested in. Although it is not known the information each visual neuron is interested in, this is a stride in the hypotheses present among stimulus selection. With these great strides, Kim’s lab is continuing in the direction of mapping the whole pathway of this navigational mechanism, striving to ultimately understand how this visual information is combined inside the ellipsoid body of the fly.

Illustrations by Esther Liu