Public Release: 

How the brain helps humans navigate from place to place

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Interactions between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex enable humans to plan and navigate their route from one location to another, a new study reveals. The results provide direct evidence of this network, shedding light on the complex processes behind goal-oriented navigation. To gather data on brain activity in humans during such a task, Thackery Brown et al. exposed humans to a virtual environment in which they had navigate to five different locations. The next day, the participants were required to find the same locations. Whole-brain, high-resolution fMRI tests were completed as these individuals planned their route, as well as during actual navigation. Analysis of the data reveals that the orbitofrontal cortex, which is known to interact with the hippocampus during memory-guided navigation, plays a key role in classifying what constitutes a "future goal," or end point, in navigation. The frontopolar cortex was found to play a role in regulating the encoding of this information in the hippocampus. Three other regions - the parahippocampal cortex, perirhinal cortex, and retrosplenial complex - were found to help the brain "visualize" future spatial contexts for navigation. The data in this study is sufficiently detailed that the researchers were able to determine when a "sub-goal," a stimulus along the route to the goal, was detected, and they also observed that recognition of these stimuli were preferred over "non-goals." Collectively, these results provide intriguing insights into how the human brain navigates space.

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