Research Topic

Wayfinding and Navigation: Strengths and Weaknesses in Atypical and Clinical Populations

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About this Research Topic

Finding our way around is a fundamental activity for every human being, even in societies that oblige us to adapt constantly to changes in our urban surroundings, and to technological advances. The ability to move from one place to another is called “wayfinding”. It can be expressed by a variety of behaviors ...

Finding our way around is a fundamental activity for every human being, even in societies that oblige us to adapt constantly to changes in our urban surroundings, and to technological advances. The ability to move from one place to another is called “wayfinding”. It can be expressed by a variety of behaviors in the field (such as finding a shortcut), and the related mental representations can be assessed in terms of performance in spatial tasks (such as estimating distances or identifying directions). Wayfinding involves cognitive skills ranging from attention and memory to planning moves and problem solving, which are supported by brain structures. These processes and factors are included in some wayfinding models relevant for the general population (e.g. Dalton, HÖlscher & Montello, 2019; Wiener, Büchner, & HÖlscher, 2009; Montello, 2005). The complexity of the matter increases, however, when individuals congenital developmental or acquired conditions are considered.

Wayfinding and navigation difficulties - as expressed by people having trouble moving from one place to another, and poor mental representations of an environment they have navigated - may indeed be a facet of congenital developmental conditions or they may be acquired. Assessing people’s strengths and weaknesses in this domain, and devising tools for supporting people’s wayfinding ability, and thereby preserving and/or developing their capacity for autonomous movement and independent living in different conditions are important research challenges.

Individuals with wayfinding-related difficulties
As part of developmental conditions impacting orientation, individuals with genetic syndromes like Williams or Down syndrome, autism, or non-verbal learning disabilities may have various space-related difficulties. It is also worth mentioning the disorder known as Developmental Topographical Disorientation, which describes individuals born with specific difficulties in orienting themselves and mentally representing spatial information, not caused by any specific brain lesions. Congenital afflictions such as blindness from birth can involve various navigation and wayfinding difficulties too. Some alterations of the hippocampus, or the para-hippocampal or parietal cortex can be responsible for such problems.
Finally, acquired conditions that impact orientation include brain injury due to trauma, stroke, neurodegenerative disorders due to pathological aging, etc. Here again, if the injury affects the hippocampus, or the para-hippocampal or parietal cortex, it can generate wayfinding difficulties and poor mental representations of environments. This can lead to topographical disorientation, spatial neglect, and other space-related impairments.
These various conditions need investigating to better elucidate similarities and differences in the space-related difficulties of the individuals affected, and what abilities they preserve or might be able to develop. In fact, many such individuals retain the ability to move around unassisted or devise strategies to reach their destinations, sometimes relying on environmental features and navigation aids.
Thanks to improvements in experimental methods (using virtual reality, for instance) and assessment measures, the expanding theoretical background on spatial cognition in healthy individuals, offers insight on how best to approach navigation and wayfinding issues in developmental, congenital and acquired conditions. While there has recently been an increase in the experimental and clinical research on such populations, these studies have usually been conducted separately, with little or no dialogue between the researchers involved. Bringing together works on populations with different types of wayfinding strengths and weaknesses in a Research Topic can help to shed new light on the aspects of spatial cognition they have in common, consequently improving our assessment approach and treatments, and expanding existing models.

Research Topic
The Research Topic will include a series of 10-14 articles, roughly half of them focusing on atypical developmental conditions and the other half on acquired clinical or congenital conditions, with a focus on the following sub-themes:

- Neurocognitive descriptions of navigation and
wayfinding difficulties, expressed by difficulties in moving from one place to another, and the related mental representations after navigating in an
environment;
- Tools for the assessment, diagnosis and
treatment of wayfinding difficulties;
- Navigation aids and their usefulness to the
individuals considered.

This effort should fill the gap between recent technological and theoretical advances in healthy human cognitive neuroscience and the progress made in relation to conditions involving space-related difficulties. It would also highlight the clinical improvements that might be achieved on the basis of such findings.


Keywords: Navigation, spatial ability, spatial memory, genetic syndromes, topographical disorientation, neurodegenerative disorders, blindness, brain injury


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