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J Neurosci. 2010 May 26;30(21):7414-22. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6021-09.2010.

Which way was I going? Contextual retrieval supports the disambiguation of well learned overlapping navigational routes.

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Psychology Department, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA.


Groundbreaking research in animals has demonstrated that the hippocampus contains neurons that distinguish between overlapping navigational trajectories. These hippocampal neurons respond selectively to the context of specific episodes despite interference from overlapping memory representations. The present study used functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans to examine the role of the hippocampus and related structures when participants need to retrieve contextual information to navigate well learned spatial sequences that share common elements. Participants were trained outside the scanner to navigate through 12 virtual mazes from a ground-level first-person perspective. Six of the 12 mazes shared overlapping components. Overlapping mazes began and ended at distinct locations, but converged in the middle to share some hallways with another maze. Non-overlapping mazes did not share any hallways with any other maze. Successful navigation through the overlapping hallways required the retrieval of contextual information relevant to the current navigational episode. Results revealed greater activation during the successful navigation of the overlapping mazes compared with the non-overlapping mazes in regions typically associated with spatial and episodic memory, including the hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex. When combined with previous research, the current findings suggest that an anatomically integrated system including the hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex is critical for the contextually dependent retrieval of well learned overlapping navigational routes.

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