Feed icon

News and Events

DCNU in the News December 2013

Sunday 8 December 2013 More...

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Journal July

Latest Quarterly Journal of:
Cognitive Neuroscience

(Volume 7: January 2014)

2012 Impact Factor: 3.160

Navigation and Spatial Memory in Terrestrial Species

A very exciting and interesting Workshop!

Attendance free and open to all staff and students at UCL and other UK institutions.

Videos of the individual talks will be posted soon... watch this space!

Workshop Speakers:

Dr Paul Graham: Evolution, Behaviour and Environment & Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, University of Sussex:

“Navigation with a Small Brain”

Dr Graham’s major research involves studies of how insects produce amazing feats of navigation with their limited neural resources. Understanding how these small creatures navigate will help us better understand how the behaviour and cognition of an animal is constrained by their environment and should provide inspiration for the development of autonomous robots.


Navigation is a universal behaviour and many animals, from across taxa, face similar challenges of moving through a shared environment. Perhaps it is no surprise that we see convergent use of some navigation strategies, such as the use of idiothetic cues for path integration and the learning of visual cues for guidance. It is both interesting and informative to ask comparative questions about how different species implement these strategies. Some of the most expert animal navigators are the foragers of social insect colonies and their remarkable abilities are proof that small brains can produce exquisitely efficient, robust navigation in complex environments. Traditionally, we have studied insect navigation by considering how behaviour might be produced by simple mechanisms, which may represent the minimal cognitive requirement for navigation. I will use two case studies to illustrate this point. Firstly, I will show how simple panoramic views, without the need for cognitive processes such as object extraction, identification or labelling can provide explanations for many findings in the insect navigation literature. Secondly, I will show how simple familiarity rules can explain the ability of animals to perform complex habitual routes, without the need for waypoint laying or place recognition. To conclude I will make the deliberately provocative point that these mechanisms might represent useful hypotheses for aspects of visually guided navigation in larger brained animals.

Paul Graham

Professor John Aggleton, FRS: School of Psychology, University of Cardiff:

“Pathways for Pace Learning With or Without Navigation

Professor Aggleton is a neuroscientist who has made major contributions to our knowledge of the neural basis of memory. He has developed influential theories that have led to fundamental changes in the ways other scientists think about the brain systems supporting how individuals remember the past events in their lives (the episodic and recognition memory systems). By combining clinical, behavioural and neuroanatomical researches he has greatly advanced understanding of the mnemonic roles of structures within the diencephalon and medial temporal lobe, and hence our understanding of the ways brain damage gives rise to amnesia.


A complex array of interactions between the temporal lobe and the medial diencephalon (including the anterior thalamic nuclei), is thought to be vital for spatial learning by rats. Anatomical analyses indicate that these interactions involve parallel pathways, indicative of multiple, parallel functions. One of these pathways conveys head-direction information, but lesion studies have often failed to isolate its importance for spatial learning. In contrast, lesion studies across the anterior thalamic nuclei have revealed the importance of these thalamic nuclei for spatial learning tasks with or without additional navigational demands.There is growing evidence that these thalamic nuclei influence the hippocampus in a variety of different ways to enable spatial learning and navigation.

John Aggleton

Dr Pamela Banta Lavenex: Institute of Psychology & Laboratory for Experimental Research on Behaviour, University of Lausanne: 

“Allocentric Spatial Memory in Primates”

Dr Pamela Banta Lavenex’s research focuses on the investigation of the neurobiological basis of memory.  In collaboration with Dr Pierre Lavenex, they lead a multi-disciplinary research program that uses genetic, molecular, neuroanatomical and behavioural approaches to investigate the postnatal development of the primate medial temporal lobe and the emergence of hippocampus-dependent memory processes in both humans and non-human primates.  Dr Banta Lavenex’s most recent work has described the emergence of allocentric spatial memory in children.


The majority of research investigating the role of the mammalian hippocampus in memory function uses rodent models of spatial memory processing. Nevertheless, it is obviously our ultimate goal to understand the specific role of the hippocampus in memory processes in humans. Given the limitations of studies on the molecular, cellular and neuroanatomical substrates of hippocampus-dependent memory in humans, investigations in non-human primates remain a critical step in assessing whether the neural mechanisms determined to underlie hippocampus-dependent memory functions in rodents are likely to be conserved in humans. Work in our laboratory is aimed at deciphering the neurobiological basis of memory development in primates, using genetic, molecular, neuroanatomical and behavioral approaches. In my talk, I will concentrate on our behavioral investigations of the role of the hippocampal formation in allocentric spatial memory function in macaque monkeys. First, I will describe our unique testing paradigm that allows monkeys to move freely in an open-field environment, and that can be used across species and developmental ages. I will describe our experiments that demonstrate the conserved role of the hippocampal formation in allocentric spatial memory in non-human primates, and thus refute previous suggestions that the hippocampal formation might function differently in primates than in rodents. I will then describe our investigations of the emergence of allocentric spatial memory in infant monkeys. Finally, I will describe our investigations of the effects of neonatal hippocampal lesions on allocentric spatial memory processes in monkeys, which revealed a preservation of spatial memory function following early but not late lesions.

Pamela Lavenex

Dr Hugo Spiers: Spatial Cognition Group, UCL Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience

“Navigational Guidance Systems in the Human Brain”

Dr Spiers is a cognitive neuroscientist who leads the UCL Spatial Cognition Group which uses neuroimaging, neuropsychological testing and single unit recording to explore spatial cognition.  His research team are interested in how our brain constructs representations of the world and uses them to navigate the present, imagine the future and remember the past.


Despite decades of research on spatial memory, we know surprisingly little about how the brain guides navigation to future goals. Neuroimaging data collected from subjects navigating London’s Soho district (UK) reveals that the hippocampus dynamically alternates the type of distance it encodes to future goals. When deciding which path to take, posterior hippocampal activity momentarily encodes the distance along the future path to the goal, whereas, during transit, anterior hippocampal activity tracks the straight-line Euclidean distance to the goal. Switching goal and forced detours drive a posterior hippocampal response that scales with the change in distance required to travel to the goal. These results argue for a guidance system housed in the hippocampus, which processes multiple metrics of distance at different time-windows during navigation.

Hugo Spiers

Dr Alastair Smith: School of Psychology, University of Nottingham

“Large Scale Search Behaviour in Typical and Atypical Populations

Dr Smith’s research broadly concerns the cognitive and neural foundations of spatial behaviour, including navigation, search, and graphic production.   He tests a number of different populations, assessing the typical development of spatial abilities (in adults and children) alongside atypical development (in individuals with Williams Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Hydrocephalus) and dysfunction following neurological damage (e.g. apraxia, hemispatial neglect).  He also employs a variety of methodologies, from GPS tracking of large-scale movement to bedside pencil and paper tasks.


Finding an object in our environment is an important everyday ability that also represents a critical component of human foraging behaviour. One type of information that aids efficient large-scale search is the likelihood of the object being in one location over another, and in this talk I will provide an overview of studies we have conducted to examine the conditions under which individuals respond to spatial statistics.  I will report work with typical adults that used a novel, large-scale environmental search paradigm to investigate probability cueing and the impact of spatial reference frames.  I will then go on to discuss similar work we have conducted in typical and atypical development. In particular, I will focus on recent findings that search behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorders appears to be less optimal and less systematic than search in typically developing children. These findings run counter to reports of superior spatial processing in ASD and suggest that we need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to studying spatial behaviour in order to formulate appropriate theories.

Alastair Smith