Multiple memory systems are involved in parallel processing of spatial information during navigation. A series of studies have distinguished between hippocampus-dependent 'spatial' navigation, which relies on knowledge of the relationship between landmarks in one's environment to build a cognitive map, and habit-based 'response' learning, which requires the memorization of a series of actions and is mediated by the caudate nucleus. Studies have demonstrated that people spontaneously use one of these two alternative navigational strategies with almost equal frequency to solve a given navigation task, and that strategy correlates with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activity and grey matter density. Although there is evidence for experience modulating grey matter in the hippocampus, genetic contributions may also play an important role in the hippocampus and caudate nucleus. Recently, the Val66Met polymorphism of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene has emerged as a possible inhibitor of hippocampal function. We have investigated the role of the BDNF Val66Met polymorphism on virtual navigation behaviour and brain activation during an fMRI navigation task. Our results demonstrate a genetic contribution to spontaneous strategies, where 'Met' carriers use a response strategy more frequently than individuals homozygous for the 'Val' allele. Additionally, we found increased hippocampal activation in the Val group relative to the Met group during performance of a virtual navigation task. Our results support the idea that the BDNF gene with the Val66Met polymorphism is a novel candidate gene involved in determining spontaneous strategies during navigation behaviour.
© 2011 The Authors. European Journal of Neuroscience © 2011 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.