Two main types of cells compose the central nervous system—neurons and glia. Neurons form the primary actors in the brain. They use electrical signals and the chemical signalling to relay information about the various regions. Without the function of neurons and supporting cells, anything that we think and experience and do would be impossible.

Recently, scientists have discovered a new brain cell type sensitive to the distance and position of items. Discovery of "vector tracing cells" is especially important as the brain area in which they occur is one of the first attacks of brain disorders such as Alzheimer's.

Scientists say the absence or alteration of those cells could be an early biomarker of the disease could lead to better intervention and more effective treatment for it.

In the research led by Dr Steven Poulter and Dr Colin Lever of Durham University, and co-leaded by Dr Thomas Wills of Central London University (UCL), Vector Trace cells showed that they could follow the distance we traveled and recall where we found objects that were added to our remembered places map.

Dr. Steven Poulter and Dr. Colin Lever in the lab discovering the cells. Credit: Dr. Steven Poulter and Dr. Colin Lever

"The discovery of Vector Trace cells is particularly important as the area of the brain they are found in is one of the first to be attacked by brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease," said Poulter, "which could explain why a common symptom and key early 'warning sign' is the losing or misplacement of objects."

It has also been well established that GPS-like brain cells can store maps of locations we were, such as our kitchen or holiday destination, but this finding also reveals that there is a type of brain cell sensitive to the distances of items that can store their position on these maps.

"I'm very impressed," said Professor John O'Keefe discussing the discovery, "Not only have they discovered a new type of brain cell, the Vector Trace cell, but their analysis of its properties is exhaustive and compelling. This discovery sheds considerable light on this important but enigmatic structure of the brain, supporting the idea that it is indeed the memory system we have always believed it to be."

Source: 2020 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures, US Census Bureau

Prof John O'Keefe, Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, first discovered brain cells that form the biological counterpart of a satellite navigation device. Their discovery has uncovered how we know where we are in space, one of the major mysteries of the neuroscience. Their research earned them the medical Nobel Prize 2014.

"This fascinating work on Vector Trace cells uncovers further levels of our memory, so often lost with brain damage and ageing. This discovery gives a possible insight into certain kinds of dementia which are now of massive importance.
"The idea that loss or change of such cells might be an early biomarker of disease could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective therapies for one of the most intractable medical conditions."

—Professor Lord Robert Winston

Cover Photo: "File:Culture of rat brain cells stained with antibody to MAP2 (green), Neurofilament (red) and DNA (blue).jpg"by GerryShaw is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0