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Navigation is the ability to estimate one’s own position and to track and plan one’s own path in physical space, be it on land, on sea, in the air or even in space. From an evolutionary perspective, navigation is key to survival, as it helps animals to find food and mates and to avoid threats. In mammals, the hippocampal formation hosts the so-called place, head direction and grid cells, the building blocks of an internal representation of space that guides navigation. In our November 2017 issue, Nature Neuroscience presents a series of reviews and opinion pieces on the theme of spatial cognition. These articles cover a broad range of topics, from the basic cellular mechanisms that contribute to the formation of a cognitive map of space to the use of this internal map for navigation in humans and how the underlying processes may serve other cognitive functions.
Moser, Moser and McNaughton provide a historical overview describing how ideas about integration of self-motion cues have shaped our understanding of spatial representation in hippocampal–entorhinal systems, from the discovery of place cells in the 1970s to contemporary studies of spatial coding in intermingled and interacting cell types within complex circuits.
The hippocampus serves a critical function in memory, navigation, and cognition. Nature Neuroscience asked John Lisman to lead a group of researchers in a dialog on shared and distinct viewpoints on the hippocampus.
Considerable progress has been made in understanding how the brain encodes our sense of direction. This Perspective considers the link between self-motion detection and navigation circuits and discusses future challenges for establishing the neural mechanisms responsible for sensing direction in both real-world and virtual-reality environments.
In this Perspective, the authors propose that functional insights into generalist cortical computation may reside at the level of population patterns rather than functionally defined cell types. They then review results showing that medial entorhinal cortex (MEC) neurons exhibit substantial heterogeneity, suggesting MEC is a generalist circuit that computes diverse episodic states.
Synaptic integration is critical for determining how information in the brain is encoded, stored and retrieved. The authors review roles for synaptic integrative mechanisms in the selection, generation and plasticity of spatially modulated firing, and in related temporal codes for representation of space.
Distinct processing of objects and space has been an organizing principle for studying higher-level vision and medial temporal lobe memory. Here Connor and Knierim discuss instead how spatial information, on both local and global scales, is deeply integrated into the ventral-temporal object-processing pathway in vision and memory.
Cognitive maps are internal representations of large-scale navigable spaces. While they have been long studied in rodents, recent work in humans reveals new insights into how cognitive maps are encoded, anchored to environmental landmarks and used to plan routes. Similar neural mechanisms might be used to form ‘maps’ of nonphysical spaces.