Using lab rats on a circular track, James Knierim, professor of neuroscience in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins, and a team of brain scientists noticed that the rats frequently paused to inspect their environment with head movements as they ran.
The scientists found that this behavior activated a place cell in their brain, which helps the animal construct a cognitive map, a pattern of activity in the brain that reflects the animal's internal representation of its environment.
The researchers state that when the rodents passed that same area of the track seconds later, place cells fired again, a neural acknowledgement that the moment has imprinted itself in the brain's cognitive map in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is the brain's warehouse for long- and short-term processing of episodic memories, such as memories of a specific experience like a trip to Maine or a recent dinner.
In the experiments, researchers placed tiny wires in the brains of the rats to monitor when and where brain activity increased as they moved along the track in search of chocolate rewards.
About every seven seconds, the rats stopped moving forward and turned their heads to the perimeter of the room as they investigated the different landmarks, behavior called "head-scanning."
Knierim said that they found that many cells that were previously silent would suddenly start firing during a specific head-scanning event.
The paper has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.