The Development of Spatial Navigation Ability from Childhood to Adulthood

Sanaya Irani, Qijing Yu, Dana Anderson, Lingfei Tang, David Chen


Spatial navigation is critical for an organism to navigate their way around an environment. Prior evidence shows age and sex differences in spatial navigation ability, with older participants requiring longer time, distance and more complex paths to reach their target. In the human brain, research in older adults has found that smaller hippocampal volume is associated with more complex paths traveled to reach the target. However, the developmental trajectories of spatial navigation from childhood through young adulthood and the underlying neural substrates, remain unclear.

Spatial navigation performance was tested using a virtual Morris Water Maze task in 71 participants aged 5-21 years (M= 10.41, SD= 4.62). Each participant completed 15 navigation trials, during which they used a joystick to reach a platform hidden under the water in the virtual swimming pool. To measure the spatial navigation ability, time, distance and complexity or fractal dimensionality (FD) of the paths that participants traveled to reach the target were calculated. Additionally, age and sex effects on navigation performance were tested.

Adult and adolescent participants and males performed better, such that older participants traveled shorter distance and males traveled less complex paths than females. Future directions include examining hippocampal volumes which are hypothesized to be associated with less time and distance required to reach the platform. Larger hippocampal volumes are also hypothesized to correlate with decreased FD values, or lowered path complexity. Additionally, future directions include examining the relation between spatial navigation and hippocampal subfields to study the functional specialization of the hippocampal subfields in navigation in typically developing population.


Spatial Navigation, Fractal Dimensionality, Morris Water Maze

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