Treasure hunting: Traveling to new locations allows the brain to seek ‘rewards’

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We are free to wander but usually when we go somewhere it’s for a reason. In a new study, researchers at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory show that as we pursue life’s prizes a region of the brain tracks our location with an especially strong predilection for the location of the reward. This pragmatic bias of the lateral septum suggests it’s a linchpin in formulating goal-directed behavior.

“It appears that the lateral septum is, in a sense, ‘prioritizing’ reward-related spatial information,” said Hannah Wirtshafter, lead author of the study in eLife and a former graduate student in the MIT lab of senior author Matthew Wilson.

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Though it’s easy for most of us to take the brain’s ability to facilitate navigation for granted, scientists study it for several reasons, Wirtshafter said.

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“Elucidating brain mechanisms and circuits involved in navigation, memory and planning may identify processes underlying impaired cognitive function in motor and memory diseases,” she said. “Additionally, knowledge of the principles of goal directed behavior can also be used to model context-dependent brain behavior in machine models to further contribute to artificial intelligence development.”

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