Magazine article Science News

Hippocampus Makes 'Social' Maps: Brain Structure Is Not Limited to Tracking Physical Locations

Magazine article Science News

Hippocampus Makes 'Social' Maps: Brain Structure Is Not Limited to Tracking Physical Locations

Article excerpt

Cells in a brain structure known as the hippocampus are cartographers, drawing mental maps of physical space. But new studies show that this seahorse-shaped hook of neural tissue can also keep track of social space, auditory space and even time, deftly mapping these various types of information into their proper places.

"The hippocampus is an organizer," says Howard Eichenbaum, a neuroscientist at Boston University.

Neuroscientist Rita Tavares described details of one of these new maps April 2. Brain scans had previously revealed that activity in the hippocampus is linked to movement through social space. In an experiment reported last year in Neuron, people went on a virtual quest to find a house and job by interacting with a cast of characters. Through these social interactions, the participants formed opinions about how much power each character held, and how kindly they felt toward him or her. These judgments put each character in a position on a "social space" map. Activity in the hippocampus was related to this social mapmaking, Tavares and colleagues found.

It turns out that this social map depends on the traits of the person who is drawing it, said Tavares, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. People with more social anxiety tended to give more power to characters they interacted with. What's more, these people's social space maps were smaller overall, suggesting that they explored social space less. …

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