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Curr Biol. 2016 Apr 25;26(8):1104-9. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.02.066.

The Occipital Place Area Is Causally Involved in Representing Environmental Boundaries during Navigation.

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Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Electronic address:
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
Department of Neurology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


Thirty years of research suggests that environmental boundaries-e.g., the walls of an experimental chamber or room-exert powerful influence on navigational behavior, often to the exclusion of other cues [1-9]. Consistent with this behavioral work, neurons in brain structures that instantiate spatial memory often exhibit firing fields that are strongly controlled by environmental boundaries [10-15]. Despite the clear importance of environmental boundaries for spatial coding, however, a brain region that mediates the perception of boundary information has not yet been identified. We hypothesized that the occipital place area (OPA), a scene-selective region located near the transverse occipital sulcus [16], might provide this perceptual source by extracting boundary information from visual scenes during navigation. To test this idea, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to interrupt processing in the OPA while subjects performed a virtual-reality memory task that required them to learn the spatial locations of test objects that were either fixed in place relative to the boundary of the environment or moved in tandem with a landmark object. Consistent with our prediction, we found that TMS to the right OPA impaired spatial memory for boundary-tethered, but not landmark-tethered, objects. Moreover, this effect was found when the boundary was defined by a wall, but not when it was defined by a marking on the ground. These results show that the OPA is causally involved in boundary-based spatial navigation and suggest that the OPA is the perceptual source of the boundary information that controls navigational behavior.

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