A virtual town called Neuralville is teaching scientists how the brain navigates

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Andrew Persichetti

Move over Disney’s town of Celebration, Florida; psychologists at Emory University have built their own settlement — and it’s called Neuralville. Only it’s not real. It’s a simulated town that lives only in the virtual world. And while that makes it sound no different to any of the hundreds of virtual dwellings found everywhere from Minecraft to The Sims to the Civilization games, Neuralville is a bit different in its ambitions.

The Emory University researchers created it as a way to help unlock the secrets of the human brain, by using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe how people’s brains respond when they navigate its sidewalks. Specifically, they want to use this model town to map the functions of the brain’s cortex with respect to how humans recognize and get around the world.

Neuralville consists of four quadrants, representing town locations, arranged around a park. Buildings include two coffee shops, a pair of dentists’ offices, a pair of hardware stores, and a couple of gyms. None of the four quadrants features the same combination of buildings. Nor do any of the buildings look the same as one another.

Participants in the study “walked” around Neuralville using a keyboard. They were then placed into random parts of the town and asked to walk to specific locations from memory. After 15 minutes they were then tested on each building and asked which part of town it was located in. Once the participants scored a perfect 100% on the test, they were put into an fMRI scanner and asked questions about the location of certain buildings. This series of tasks was peformed multiple times.

Brain data gathered from the study helped reveal the way that the human brain uses three distinct systems to perceive environments: one for recognizing a place, another for navigating through that place, and a third for navigating from one place to another. The researchers hope that their work could be used to develop better brain rehabilitation methods for people with problems in scene recognition and navigation. It could also be useful for improving computer vision systems, like those used for self-driving cars.

“While it’s incredible that we can show that different parts of the cortex are responsible for different functions, it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” Daniel Dilks, Emory associate professor of psychology, said in a statement. “Now that we understand what these regions of the brain are doing we want to know precisely how they’re doing it and why’re they’re organized in this way.”