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Are Babies Born with a Sense of Direction?

Who needs a GPS when you’ve got a baby on board?

If baby rats are any indication, it seems possible that babies might be born with an innate sense of direction, according to LiveScience. Researchers working on a new study found that baby rats are born with a sense of direction — even before they take their first steps. This discovery could be an indication that baby humans are also hardwired with navigation system.

To conduct the study, researchers implanted electrodes into the brains of newborn rats in the spots which control mapping and direction. From the earliest stages of a rat’s life, the researchers detected activity in the neurons which control the sense of direction.

“The rats are so young they haven’t had experience beyond the nest, which is so small they can’t walk in it,” said researcher Francesca Cacucci of the University College London Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience. “The signals are there from the very first time. We assume that these must have been hardwired before.”

The researchers differentiated among the three key aspects of the brain’s navigational system: sense of location, sense of direction, and sense of distance.

They found that when the rat pups were first born, their directional neurons were already active. The location cells, which indicate the animal’s current position, developed over the first few days of life. The distance neurons, which help detect how far away things are, developed in the first few weeks. By that point, rats were able to navigate a maze.

Of course, as LiveScience points out, a a comparable study would be impossible to conduct with humans because the electrodes are too invasive.

But researchers think the rat findings could translate to humans as well.

“The milestones that human infants go through are very much like the ones that young rats go through,” Cacucci told LiveScience. “We can extrapolate to some extent and we can assume these cells are doing something in the human brain as well.”

The scientists couldn’t detect any differences between individual rats, so it was unclear why some of them seemed to have a better sense of direction than others.

If humans are born with a sense of direction, why is it so hard for some of us to find our way without technological assistance?

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sara/

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