Welcome to D.C. – on traveling and sex differences
As Derek and Chelsea both mentioned in earlier posts, we arose at the early hour of 4:30 a.m. and have been out and about in the world of Neuroscience ever since. After arriving at the hotel, we went out to grab some lunch on our way to the conference center. Three sandwiches and fifteen minutes of walking later, Chelsea and I determined that, under Derek’s direction we were almost certainly going the wrong way. After what seemed like mindless wandering, Chelsea and I finally spotted a landmark we knew was near the conference center. “New York Ave – we drove on that street earlier,” we cried out and following New York Ave, we eventually ran into a mass of neuroscientists heading towards the conference. Despite our “detour”, we finally arrived and were ready to don our super-cool “Social media” badges and check out some neuroscience. Venturing into the massive poster hall, we ran into a former mentor of Melissa’s (our professor) with a current grad student and their poster, Sex differences in hippocampal neuronal population responses to variations in environmental context (Tognoni & Williams). This had to be destiny. Chelsea and I had only just finished complaining about Derek’s mis-navigation when what should we find but a study highlighting sex differences in navigation strategies! In other words, this study was essentially about the rat versions of Derek and I, navigating our way through a rat version of Washington D.C.
Female rats, it turns out, are more likely to use landmarks to navigate through spaces, while male rats have a tendency to rely on hippocampal spatial awareness, using their memory of a path rather than memory for landmarks. In this study, the rats were placed in a novel environment, and then later placed in the same environment but with different landmarks. Female rats showed more reactivation of hippocampal CA3 cells than males did when the landmarks were changed, indicating that the activation of CA3 cells is important for landmark memory in females, but less important in males as they don’t rely on landmarks to navigate.
While I sometimes find it difficult to imagine how animal studies might generalize to my human life, I saw this effect in action today. All day long as we’ve been navigating ourselves through airports and cities, I’ve been looking for landmarks and street names to construct my mental map. Derek, on the other hand, has been shouting out vague directions based on mental paths. “Which method is better?” you might ask yourself. To this, I would answer that both methods are fine… but if you insist on following your mental pathway, make sure you don’t miss the first turn and lead your peers on a wild goose chase towards the Washington Monument. Continuing to think about sex differences, a topic that’s come up in our class a few times, I’m looking forward to a roundtable discussion tomorrow called “The Promise and Peril of Research on Sex Differences”.