Emma Wood

Dr Emma Wood is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems.

We look at how spatial navigation and memory are affected in neurodevelopmental disorders such as fragile X syndrome.

Firing rate maps of 6 hippocampal place cells recorded from a rat foraging for food in a cylindrical apparatus. Each circle represents a top-down view of the cylinder, colour coded as a function of the mean firing rate of one place cell as the rat occupies different locations within the cylinder. Warmer colours depict higher firing rates and dark blue represents regions of the cylinder in which the cell did not fire. Different place cells fire at different locations within the environment.

Our work investigates parts of the brain responsible for spatial navigation, learning and memory — specifically, the ability to know where we are and how to get to where we want to go, and also the ability to remember specific events from our lives.

Intriguingly, these abilities depend on the same regions of the brain perhaps because our so-called episodic memories — memories for specific events that we have experienced — often include information about where those events occurred.

For instance, try to remember what you did on your last birthday….do you remember where you were when these events took place?

We research how spatially modulated cells located in areas of the brain known as the hippocampus and parahippocampal cortex, work and interact to underpin spatial cognition and episodic memory.

Much of our work has investigated properties of place cells in the hippocampus. These neurons fire when an individual is in a particular location within their environment. Different place cells fire in different locations, such that together they form a maplike representation of the environment (see figure below). As well as being able to inform an individual about their current location, we have shown that place cells can also signal where the individual has come from and where they are going to. Other types of spatial neurons signal information about which direction the individual is facing, how far they have travelled and distance and direction from the borders of the environment, such as the walls of a room. We are working to understand how these networks of neurons interact to coordinate spatial navigation and episodic memory.

This basic research guides our collaborative studies with other members of the Patrick Wild Centre who are investigating rodent models of neurodevelopmental disorders, including the rat FMR1 ko model of fragile X syndrome, in which hippocampal function — as well as that of other brain regions — is altered. We are interested in understanding how these alterations affect cognition and memory, and how this might result from alterations in the properties of place cells and other spatial cell types described above.

Email: Emma.Wood@ed.ac.uk

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