The role of the Hypothalamus in location recognition

The ability to recognize objects, our location, and faces is a skill we very often take for granted simply because for most of us, it is effortless. Without struggle we can walk into a room and identify the components within it because this information is processed without conscious effort. One does not have to focus on and think about which object in the room is a chair or a desk or a person.  The information is simply just there.  As the book mentions in chapter three, there are many suggestions for why this essential cognitive process occurs. Perhaps we break an object down into its features or compare it to set prototypes in our minds that are formed from previous experiences. Certainly evidence has accumulated through many experiences to show that some areas of the brain are highly specialized for specific cognitive tasks. For example, the role the fusiform gyrus plays in facial recognition. In an interview conducted by RadioLab with a woman named Sharon Roseman, the idea that a specific area in the brain is specialized for specific recognition tasks is further explored.

RadioLab: You Are Here

The interview begins with Mrs. Roseman explaining a phenomenon she has had to deal with most of her life. She states at the age of 5 years old, while playing a game, she suddenly was unable to recognize her surroundings. She describes it as the entire world “shifting 90 degrees.” She states this inability to maintain an idea of her surroundings caused her to struggle with several daily life tasks like walking to a store or going to a friend’s house. She was able to identify objects such as houses, streets, cars, etc. however she was unable to identify where she was located. In her recount of this occurring at the age of 5, she states she was able to identify her mother but she was confused why her mother was there because she did not recognize the house as her own.

Later on in life, after numerous normal medical tests, Mrs. Roseman is able to make contact with Dr. Guiseppe Iaria.  He connects her to another woman, also named Sharon, who experiences similar deficits in recognition. Together they explain that they have learned to offset their afflictions through the use of map books and GPS navigation devices. They are eventually diagnosed with developmental topographic disorientation, or DTD, a disorder that is caused by an underdeveloped or absent hypothalamus.

This episode of RadioLab then further explains that according to very recent research, it is apparent that a region in the hypothalamus is responsible for creating a “map” of our surroundings in our minds. It explains that there are different types of cells that may be responsible for making one aware when he or she is near a wall or facing a specific direction. It makes sense to conclude that one with a defective hypothalamus would then have difficulty recognizing their surroundings.

Normal Hypothalamus depicted

While I believe that this is a credible and well trusted source, this episode of RadioLab raises more questions.  The hypothalamus has been shown to play a role in many cognitive and physiological functions, so would one with a malfunctioning hypothalamus be likely show other deficits as well? Or in the case of DTD, does only a specific region of the hypothalamus go underdeveloped?  Further research into the cognitive processes related to recognition and the specialized brain regions associated with them is no doubt necessary.