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Navigation Research: Mapping the Future

December 1–7, 2024

Ernst Strüngmann Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Nora S. Newcombe and Ken Cheng, Chairs

Program Advisory Committee

Ken Cheng, Kate Jeffery, Julia Lupp, Nora Newcombe, and Thomas Wolbers

Goals of the Forum

  • To integrate research on biological navigation across species and agents and across different levels of analysis (behavioral data with cellular, circuit, and systems neuroscience).
  • To address variations in navigation across individuals, ages, environments, and cultures.
  • To identify major next questions and derive a roadmap for future navigation research.


How animals navigate, for example, across complex terrain, featureless oceans, or deserts to find their way home after a foraging trip has long fascinated and puzzled observers. Successful navigation is essential to survival. Thus, understanding its mechanisms has long been a major goal for researchers in biology, neuroscience, psychology, and robotics. Easing the task of wayfinding has also been the focus for the practical inventors of human navigational tools, which have ranged from traditional systems using a complex mix of terrestrial and celestial cues to modern global positioning systems. A wealth of behavioral and neural data has been generated, which when combined with formal computational specificity offers an excellent opportunity to formulate pluralistic explanations might link brain and behavior as well as relate behavioral patterns to neural firing patterns.

The field of navigation, however, has been fragmented, with little communication across disciplines and levels of analysis. For example, neuroscientists recording cells may not think about, or find it difficult to tackle experimentally, the ecological validity of the behaviors their animals engage in, while biologists seeking to understand natural behavior may not consider the neural substrates supporting it, limiting their hypotheses. One reason for this fragmentation is that the variety of findings and wealth of data generated by these endeavors can be overwhelming. This Forum aims to address this issue by synthesizing what is known and identifying the major gaps in our understanding in order to drive future research.

As delineated below, working groups will address key issues and consider common concerns such as: Are there universal design principles for navigation? What changes in conceptualization or methodology would accelerate progress and enhance communication across subdisciplines?

Group 1: Integrating across Levels (from cells and circuits to brains and behavior)

Issue: Understanding navigation requires combining insights into spatial behavior and its underlying neural mechanisms at multiple levels of spatial and temporal scale. Studies with nonhuman animals often focus on cells and circuits, while studies with humans typically focus on networks and behavior and living in various cultures. How can we best facilitate comparisons and productive interchange across labs working with different species and techniques?

  • Can we collaborate to analyze the development of navigation across species?
  • Is it possible to understand behavioral variation among individuals using neural tools?
  • Can we describe how environmental input affects navigation at both the neural and the behavioral levels?
  • Are there emerging technologies or analytic techniques to aid translation across levels of analysis?

Group 2: Integrating across Model Systems (cross-species, multiple tasks, etc.)

Issue: The functional requirements of navigating under different environmental conditions vary, and the evolution of navigational strategies is the story of adaptation to these different conditions. This group will look across model systems, as well as the different methods and questions used by various communities, to consider sensory ecology and its effects on the enactment of motor actions and central processing. The overall theme is to flesh out what is common and what might differ across these systems in mechanisms and strategies for reaching a navigational goal.

  • What is common across species in navigational strategies and mechanisms in different ecotypes (water, air, land, vertical travel, horizontal travel, etc.) and scales of travel?
  • What differences exist across species in navigational strategies and mechanisms driven during evolution by differences in the ecotypes in which organisms travel?

Group 3: Brain Systems Beyond the Hippocampus (emotion, planning, memory storage)

Issue: Much of the neurobiological work on mammalian navigation has traditionally focused on the hippocampus place cell system but it is becoming increasingly clear that many parts of the brain are involved in navigation, distributed across wide regions of the brain (both cortical and subcortical). Tackling these other areas has been challenging because neural signals as clear as the place, head direction, and grid cell activity patterns are rarely found in other brain areas. How do we get traction on these more complex, integrated, and distributed signals? What new technology or experimental paradigms could help?

  • Emotional systems: What makes a place good or bad, to be approached or avoided, etc.? What neural systems and cellular processes are involved?
  • Memory systems: Where is place knowledge stored and how is it retrieved and updated? Is spatial and episodic memory the same thing or are these distinguishable?
  • Planning systems: How are decisions made between multiple navigational options and a route planned to a goal?
  • Action systems: How is desire to reach a goal turned into a broad plan and then fine-tuned into a sequential set of action segments and ultimately into muscle commands?
  • From spatial to nonspatial cognition: Is the spatial system used for more general cognitive domains?
  • Other brains: How do brains represent the location and intentions of others, and how are group navigational decisions made and enacted?

Group 4: From Fundamental Science to the Clinic

Issue: Much progress has been made in understanding the neural/behavioral mechanisms that support spatial navigation. However, the impact of this research in a clinical context is negligible, because (i) our understanding of how neurological conditions affect navigation still is limited, (ii) there are no commonly accepted tools to reliably assess navigation in clinical settings, and (iii) it is difficult to predict the impact of navigational deficits—measured in a controlled environment—on real-life mobility.

  • What can we learn from animal models of disease or aging about the human case? How can we overcome the problems/limitations associated with studying animal models?
  • What are the most relevant clinical use cases for navigational assessment (e.g., early disease detection /differential diagnosis in neurodegenerative disorders, POCD)? How do disorders of nonspatial functions (e.g., emotional disturbances) affect spatial navigation?
  • How do navigation deficits—as documented by standardized testing—affect patients’ wayfinding behavior and everyday quality of life?
  • Is it possible to improve navigational performance? If yes, what approach would be most promising? Could potential benefits generalize to nonspatial functions?
  • How can we bridge the gap from clinical science to clinical practice, given the constraints one typically faces in a clinical context (e.g., limited time/space, low technical proficiency, limited openness to technology, dependence on hardware developers who target different markets)?