Study finds neural differences in good navigators

November 27, 2013
Diffusion tensor image showing the white matter in the brains of bad navigators. The red colour indicates extra white matter around the caudate nucleus.

The brains of people who immediately know their way after travelling along as a passenger are different from the brains of people who always need a GPS system or a map to get from one place to another. This was demonstrated by Joost Wegman, who will defend his thesis at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands on the 27th of November.

Wegman demonstrates that good navigators store relevant landmarks automatically on their way. Bad navigators on the other hand, often follow a fixed procedure or route (such as: turn left twice, then turn right at the statue).

Anatomical differences

Wegman also found that there are detectable structural differences between the brains of good and bad navigators. 'These anatomical differences are not huge, but we found them significant enough, because we had a lot of data', the researcher explains. 'The difference is in the hippocampus. We saw that good navigators had more so-called gray matter. In the 's gray matter information is processed. Bad navigators, on the other hand, have more – which connects areas with each other – in a brain area called the caudate nucleus. This area stores spatial actions with respect to oneself. For example, to turn right at the record store', Wegman describes.


For his research, Wegman combined data from several studies done by the Radboud University research group Neural Correlates of Spatial Memory at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour.

Wegman: 'We always give participants extensive questionnaires in our studies. This allows us to explain possible differences in behaviour afterwards. People generally have a good insight into their ability to find their way, so these questions provide a feasible way to assess these abilities. I have coupled the answers of these questionnaires with the brain scans we have collected over the years, which allowed us to detect these differences'.

Explore further: MR spectroscopy shows differences in brains of preterm infants

More information: Wegman, J. & Janzen, G. "Neural encoding of objects relevant for navigation and resting state correlations with navigational ability." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23, 3841–3854 (2011).

Wegman, J. et al. "Gray and white matter correlates of navigational ability in humans." Human Brain Mapping (in press). DOI: 10.1002/hbm.22349

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Rat brain atlas provides MR images for stereotaxic surgery

October 21, 2016

Boris Odintsov, senior research scientist at the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Thomas Brozoski, research professor ...

ALS study reveals role of RNA-binding proteins

October 20, 2016

Although only 10 percent of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) cases are hereditary, a significant number of them are caused by mutations that affect proteins that bind RNA, a type of genetic material. University of California ...

Imaging technique maps serotonin activity in living brains

October 20, 2016

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that's partly responsible for feelings of happiness and for mood regulation in humans. This makes it a common target for antidepressants, which block serotonin from being reabsorbed by neurons ...

Overcoming egocentricity increases self-control

October 19, 2016

Neurobiological models of self-control usually focus on brain mechanisms involved in impulse control and emotion regulation. Recent research at the University of Zurich shows that the mechanism for overcoming egocentricity ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.