The Hegarty Spatial Thinking Lab has previously used cognitive neuroscience methods to study processes, such as mental rotation and perspective taking (Keehner et al., 2006; Wolbers et al., 2003, 2006), and the processes involved in spatial navigation. In specific, path integration, the ability to sense self-motion, allows humans and animals to find novel shortcuts and to return to their origin of travel via a direct path, even after long, winding excursions. In sharp contrast to the abundant information available on rodents, the neural foundations of path integration are not well understood in humans. Thomas Wolbers, a former post-doc in the lab, combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and navigation in interactive virtual environments to demonstrate that visual path integration is tightly linked to the dynamic interplay of self-motion processing in area MST, higher-level spatial processes in the hippocampus and spatial working memory in medial prefrontal cortex (Wolbers et al., 2008).
Path integration is also a keystone for the development of cognitive maps. In previous studies, we have characterized the neural systems mediating the gradual acquisition of route and survey knowledge from ground-level navigation (Wolbers et al., 2004; Wolbers & Büchel, 2005). Whereas retrosplenial cortex was shown to integrate egocentric spatial information with path integration signals, the hippocampus appears to incorporate highly processed spatial information into emerging survey representations. Currently, Heather Burte is investigating the use of egocentric and allocentric reference frames within a directional task in fMRI. Previous studies have found that directional coding occurs in the retrosplential cortex (Vass & Epstein, 2013); however, Heather has developed a directional task that can be completed with the use of either egocentric or allocentric references frames. The main research question being: Does directional coding in the brain reside solely in the retrosplenial cortex, regardless of the frame of reference being employed?