Gray and white matter correlates of navigational ability in humans

Hum Brain Mapp. 2014 Jun;35(6):2561-72. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22349. Epub 2013 Sep 3.


Humans differ widely in their navigational abilities. Studies have shown that self-reports on navigational abilities are good predictors of performance on navigation tasks in real and virtual environments. The caudate nucleus and medial temporal lobe regions have been suggested to subserve different navigational strategies. The ability to use different strategies might underlie navigational ability differences. This study examines the anatomical correlates of self-reported navigational ability in both gray and white matter. Local gray matter volume was compared between a group (N = 134) of good and bad navigators using voxel-based morphometry (VBM), as well as regional volumes. To compare between good and bad navigators, we also measured white matter anatomy using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and looked at fractional anisotropy (FA) values. We observed a trend toward higher local GM volume in right anterior parahippocampal/rhinal cortex for good versus bad navigators. Good male navigators showed significantly higher local GM volume in right hippocampus than bad male navigators. Conversely, bad navigators showed increased FA values in the internal capsule, the white matter bundle closest to the caudate nucleus and a trend toward higher local GM volume in the caudate nucleus. Furthermore, caudate nucleus regional volume correlated negatively with navigational ability. These convergent findings across imaging modalities are in line with findings showing that the caudate nucleus and the medial temporal lobes are involved in different wayfinding strategies. Our study is the first to show a link between self-reported large-scale navigational abilities and different measures of brain anatomy.

Keywords: caudate nucleus; diffusion tensor imaging; hippocampus; magnetic resonance imaging; navigational abilities; parahippocampal gyrus; sense of direction; volumetry; voxel-based morphometry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Anisotropy
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Organ Size
  • Sex Factors
  • Spatial Navigation*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • White Matter / anatomy & histology*
  • Young Adult