The mammalian hippocampal formation contains several distinct populations of neurons involved in representing self-position and orientation. These neurons, which include place, grid, head direction, and boundary cells, are thought to collectively instantiate cognitive maps supporting flexible navigation. However, to flexibly navigate, it is necessary to also maintain internal representations of goal locations, such that goal-directed routes can be planned and executed. Although it has remained unclear how the mammalian brain represents goal locations, multiple neural candidates have recently been uncovered during different phases of navigation. For example, during planning, sequential activation of spatial cells may enable simulation of future routes toward the goal. During travel, modulation of spatial cells by the prospective route, or by distance and direction to the goal, may allow maintenance of route and goal-location information, supporting navigation on an ongoing basis. As the goal is approached, an increased activation of spatial cells may enable the goal location to become distinctly represented within cognitive maps, aiding goal localization. Lastly, after arrival at the goal, sequential activation of spatial cells may represent the just-taken route, enabling route learning and evaluation. Here, we review and synthesize these and other evidence for goal coding in mammalian brains, relate the experimental findings to predictions from computational models, and discuss outstanding questions and future challenges.
Keywords: entorhinal cortex; goal; hippocampus; human; navigation; reinforcement learning; rodent; spatial memory; wayfinding.
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