The human retrosplenial cortex and thalamus code head direction in a global reference frame

TitleThe human retrosplenial cortex and thalamus code head direction in a global reference frame
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsShine, JP, Valdés-Herrera, JP, Hegarty, M, Wolbers, T
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Start Page6371

Spatial navigation is a multisensory process involving integration of visual and body-based cues. In rodents, head direction (HD) cells, which are most abundant in the thalamus, integrate these cues to code facing direction. Human fMRI studies examining HD coding in virtual environments (VE) have reported effects in retrosplenial complex and (pre-)subiculum, but not the thalamus. Furthermore, HD coding appeared insensitive to global landmarks. These tasks, however, provided only visual cues for orientation, and attending to global landmarks did not benefit task performance. In the present study, participants explored a VE comprising four separate locales, surrounded by four global landmarks. To provide body-based cues, participants wore a head-mounted display so that physical rotations changed facing direction in the VE. During subsequent MRI scanning, subjects saw stationary views of the environment and judged whether their orientation was the same as in the preceding trial. Parameter estimates extracted from retrosplenial cortex and the thalamus revealed significantly reduced BOLD responses when HD was repeated. Moreover, consistent with rodent findings, the signal did not continue to adapt over repetitions of the same HD. These results were supported by a whole-brain analysis showing additional repetition suppression in the precuneus. Together, our findings suggest that: (1) consistent with the rodent literature, the human thalamus may integrate visual and body-based, orientation cues; (2) global reference frame cues can be used to integrate HD across separate individual locales; and (3) immersive training procedures providing full body-based cues may help to elucidate the neural mechanisms supporting spatial navigation.