Έρευνα: Κι όμως τα κατοικίδια ζώα ξέρουν την ώρα – Τι αποκαλύπτουν πειράματα

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Τελικά το κατοικίδιό σας ξέρει την ώρα! Αυτό ανακάλυψαν ερευνητές του Πανεπιστημίου Νορθγουέστερν στο Ιλινόι των ΗΠΑ μελετώντας τον μέσο ενδορινικό φλοιό του εγκεφάλου, όπου και εντόπισαν μια άγνωστη ομάδα νευρώνων οι οποίοι λειτουργούν ως ρολόι όταν τα ζώα περιμένουν κάτι (κυρίως το φαγητό τους!).

Αναπαράσταση του χρόνου

«Γνωρίζει ο σκύλος σας ότι σήμερα αργήσατε να του βάλετε φαγητό σε σχέση με χθες; Δεν υπήρχε μια ικανοποιητική απάντηση σε αυτό το ερώτημα μέχρι σήμερα» ανέφερε ο Ντάνιελ Ντόμπεκ, αναπληρωτής καθηγητής Νευροβιολογίας στο Κολέγιο Weinberg για τις Τέχνες και τις Επιστήμες του Πανεπιστημίου Νορθγουέστερν και επικεφαλής της μελέτης η οποία δημοσιεύθηκε στην επιθεώρηση «Nature Neuroscience». «Το πείραμα που διεξαγάγαμε είναι ένα από τα πιο πειστικά, τα οποία δείχνουν πως τα ζώα διαθέτουν την ικανότητα σαφούς αναπαράστασης του χρόνου στον εγκέφαλό τους όταν χρειάζεται να μετρήσουν ένα διάστημα χρόνου».

Στη μελέτη η ερευνητική ομάδα επικεντρώθηκε στον μέσο ενδορινικό φλοιό, μια περιοχή που έχει την έδρα της στον κροταφικό λοβό και η οποία συνδέεται με τη μνήμη και την «πλοήγηση» στον χώρο. Με δεδομένο ότι η συγκεκριμένη περιοχή του εγκεφάλου κωδικοποιεί τις χωρικές πληροφορίες στην επεισοδιακή μνήμη, η ερευνητική ομάδα υπέθεσε ότι μπορεί επίσης να εμπλέκεται στην κωδικοποίηση του χρόνου.

«Κάθε ανάμνηση είναι λίγο διαφορετική» ανέφερε ο Τζέιμς Χέιζ, μεταδιδακτορικός ερευνητής στο εργαστήριο του καθηγητή Ντόμπεκ. «Ωστόσο υπάρχουν δύο κύρια χαρακτηριστικά σε όλες τις επεισοδιακές αναμνήσεις: ο χώρος και ο χρόνος. Πάντα συμβαίνουν σε ένα συγκεκριμένο περιβάλλον και πάντα είναι δομημένες μέσα στον χρόνο».

Το «πείραμα της πόρτας»

Προκειμένου να διερευνήσουν την υπόθεσή τους ο δρ Ντόμπεκ και ο δρ Χέιζ σχεδίασαν ένα πείραμα, το αποκαλούμενο «πείραμα της πόρτας». Στο πείραμα αυτό ένα ποντίκι τρέχει σε έναν διάδρομο μέσα σε ένα εικονικό περιβάλλον. Το ποντίκι μαθαίνει να τρέχει μέσα στο εικονικό περιβάλλον ως το σημείο που βρίσκεται μια πόρτα. Μετά από έξι δευτερόλεπτα η πόρτα ανοίγει επιτρέποντας στο πειραματόζωο να συνεχίσει την πορεία του ώστε να βρει ένα «βραβείο», μια λιχουδιά.

Τα ποντίκια του πειράματος «προπονήθηκαν» αρκετές φορές σε αυτή την εικονική διαδρομή και στη συνέχεια οι ερευνητές έκαναν αόρατη την πόρτα μέσα στο εικονικό περιβάλλον. Στο πλαίσιο του νέου σεναρίου το ποντίκι φάνηκε να γνωρίζει πού βρισκόταν η αόρατη πλέον πόρτα. Και μάλιστα περίμενε έξι δευτερόλεπτα στο σημείο της πόρτας που δεν υπήρχε πλέον προτού συνεχίσει να τρέχει για να πάρει τη λιχουδιά του. Σύμφωνα με τον δρα Χέιζ που ήταν και ο πρώτος συγγραφέας της νέας μελέτης, αυτό αποδεικνύει πως το ποντίκι χρησιμοποιεί την εσωτερική αίσθηση του χρόνου που διαθέτει για να φθάσει ως τη λιχουδιά.

Απεικόνιση του εγκεφάλου

Οι ερευνητές πήγαν όμως το πείραμα ένα βήμα πιο πέρα – κατέγραψαν τη δραστηριότητα του εγκεφάλου των ποντικιών με χρήση μικροσκοπίας δύο φωτονίων η οποία επιτρέπει την υψηλής ανάλυσης απεικόνιση του εγκεφάλου. Ετσι ανακάλυψαν τη νέα ομάδα νευρώνων η οποία ενεργοποιείται όταν τα ζώα χρειάζεται να μετρήσουν τα έξι δευτερόλεπτα κατά τη διάρκεια του πειράματος προτού συνεχίσουν να τρέχουν. «Καθώς τα πειραματόζωα έτρεχαν και έφθαναν στην αόρατη πόρτα, βλέπαμε να ενεργοποιούνται τα νευρικά κύτταρα που ελέγχουν την κωδικοποίηση του χώρου. Οταν τα ζώα σταματούσαν στο σημείο της πόρτας τα κύτταρα αυτά «έκλειναν διακόπτες»και ενεργοποιείτο μια άλλη ομάδα κυττάρων. Αυτή ήταν μια μεγάλη έκπληξη για εμάς και μια νέα ανακάλυψη» εξήγησε ο καθηγητής Ντόμπεκ.

Όπως μάλιστα σημείωσε, τα κύτταρα του «συγχρονισμού» δεν λειτουργούσαν όταν τα ζώα έτρεχαν, παρά μόνο όταν σταματούσαν το τρέξιμο. «Τα κύτταρα αυτά κωδικοποιούν πόση ώρα το ζώο σταματά να τρέχει».

Ελπίδα για Αλτσχάιμερ

Η νέα μελέτη δεν λύνει απορίες μόνο σχετικά με τα ζώα, όπως το αγαπημένο κατοικίδιό σας. Τώρα που οι ερευνητές ανακάλυψαν αυτούς τους νέους νευρώνες που καταγράφουν τον χρόνο, μπορούν να μελετήσουν πώς οι νευροεκφυλιστικές νόσοι επιδρούν επάνω τους. «Οι ασθενείς με νόσο Αλτσχάιμερ ξεχνούν πότε συνέβη το κάθε γεγονός. Ισως αυτό συμβαίνει επειδή χάνουν κάποιες από τις βασικές λειτουργίες του ενδορινικού φλοιού, ο οποίος είναι μια από τις πρώτες περιοχές του εγκεφάλου που πλήττονται από τη συγκεκριμένη νευροεκφυλιστική νόσο» ανέφερε ο δρ Χέιζ. Και ο καθηγητής Ντόμπεκ συμπλήρωσε ότι αυτού του είδους η μελέτη μπορεί να οδηγήσει σε νέα τεστ πρώιμης ανίχνευσης της Αλτσχάιμερ. «Μπορούμε για παράδειγμα να αρχίσουμε να ζητάμε από άτομα με αυξημένο κίνδυνο για Αλτσχάιμερ να πλοηγούνται σε ένα περιβάλλον εικονικής πραγματικότητας – να περνούν ουσιαστικώς από το τεστ της «πόρτας»».

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