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Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Aug 4;8:571. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00571. eCollection 2014.

Challenges for identifying the neural mechanisms that support spatial navigation: the impact of spatial scale.

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German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), and Center for Behavioural Brain Sciences (CBBS), Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg, Germany.
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science and Technology, Bournemouth University Bournemouth, UK.


Spatial navigation is a fascinating behavior that is essential for our everyday lives. It involves nearly all sensory systems, it requires numerous parallel computations, and it engages multiple memory systems. One of the key problems in this field pertains to the question of reference frames: spatial information such as direction or distance can be coded egocentrically-relative to an observer-or allocentrically-in a reference frame independent of the observer. While many studies have associated striatal and parietal circuits with egocentric coding and entorhinal/hippocampal circuits with allocentric coding, this strict dissociation is not in line with a growing body of experimental data. In this review, we discuss some of the problems that can arise when studying the neural mechanisms that are presumed to support different spatial reference frames. We argue that the scale of space in which a navigation task takes place plays a crucial role in determining the processes that are being recruited. This has important implications, particularly for the inferences that can be made from animal studies in small scale space about the neural mechanisms supporting human spatial navigation in large (environmental) spaces. Furthermore, we argue that many of the commonly used tasks to study spatial navigation and the underlying neuronal mechanisms involve different types of reference frames, which can complicate the interpretation of neurophysiological data.


allocentric and egocentric representation; environmental space; hippocampus; reference frames; spatial navigation; vista space

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