ERC Consolidator Grant for Hiroshi Ito

Frankfurt neuroscientist receives his second ERC grant to study the neural mechanism of spatial navigation.

January 31, 2023

Hiroshi Ito, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, has been awarded the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant for his project ‘Neural circuits enabling navigational simulations’. The ERC Consolidator Grants are worth on average €2.0 million and support ambitious high-risk/high-gain research projects.

An internal map

Neuroscientists believe that the brain has an internal map system, a so-called cognitive map. As Ito explains: “When you plan to visit a familiar place, such as your favourite restaurant, you get a sense of its direction and distance before you start your journey, even without seeing it. If your usual route to this restaurant is blocked by construction work, you can immediately come up with an alternative route.”

The existence of a cognitive map in the mammalian brain, including humans and rodents, is now widely accepted. Over the last decades, neuroscientists have provided a line of supporting evidence, including the identification of neurons that are activated depending on an animal’s position in space, as well as a population of neurons that point to an animal’s subsequent destination – a ‘goal map’ – as reported by Ito’s research group. These discoveries provide tools to ‘read’ an animal’s mind before it begins to navigate.

In this project funded by the ERC grant, Ito’s group will investigate how an animal’s brain can set its internal goal, plan possible routes or paths, and evaluate the most appropriate one to follow. The researcher elaborates: “My hypothesis is that many of these operations in the brain are not necessarily expressed as actions, but occur purely internally, which will support the idea that animals can perform mental simulations like humans.”

Ito expects that these studies may also provide new insights into the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders, for example, how our internal thought processes are controlled and can be disrupted under symptoms such as illusions or hallucinations.  

About the scientist

Hiroshi Ito earned his PhD in Biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, USA. This was followed by his postdoctoral research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim. Since 2016, he has been an independent research group leader of the Memory and Navigation Circuits Group at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. He was awarded his first ERC grant (Starting Grant) in 2017.

About the ERC

The European Research Council was set up by the European Union in 2007 and is the premiere European funding organization for excellent basic research, enabling talented and creative researchers – chosen on the basis of an EU-wide competition - to pursue the most promising avenues of science. ERC Consolidator Grants are designed to support exceptional scientists at the mid-career stage when their research group is in the consolidation phase.

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