orientation and navigation

The human ability to orient within the environment is a very complex behaviour that requires numerous cognitive skills. We are interested in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying the variety of cognitive functions underlying this complex phenomenon. Our studies involve testing healthy individuals (children and adults) and patient populations. The following are some of our projects in progress.

Topographical disorientation may occur without any brain injury and with intact general cognitive functioning, resulting in what we termed as Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD). The approaches in this project involve the use of different techniques aiming at identifying the behavioural and neural mechanisms underlying this newly discovered condition. In addition, this project includes a genetic study in collaboration with Dr. Torben Bech-Hansen (Department of Medical Genetics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary) aiming at identifying the gene(s) responsible for the life-long presence of DTD. Finally, the project includes the development of (re)habilitation treatments allowing individuals with DTD to practice and make use of selective strategies useful for orientation. Please visit our website www.gettinglost.ca to find out more about DTD.

Wayfinding refers to the ability to successfully navigate and orient in spatial surroundings. On Earth, this important cognitive phenomenon relies on the proper integration of visual, proprioceptive and vestibular information, which are all critical for developing a sense direction and location within the environment. Onboard the International Space Station (ISS), the relative lack of gravitational forces (i.e. microgravity) greatly changes an astronaut’s proprioceptive and vestibular sensory experience. This change is known to result in space motion sickness, perceptual illusions, and spatial disorientation as astronauts adapt to the ISS environment. To date, however, the behavioural and neurological effects of microgravity on Earth, following a long duration spaceflight, remain unknown. This is the main objective of this project. Neurological structure and function will be assessed in a group of astronauts through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and spatial orientation skills will be evaluated by using a series of tasks in virtual environments. This study provides a comprehensive assessment of the cognitive and neurological changes associated with spaceflight and post-flight rehabilitation of astronauts with missions on the ISS. The clear characterization of these changes will not only inform current research into preventative measures taken to combat space motion sickness and spatial disorientation, but may also illuminate unforeseen beneficial neurological outcomes that new prophylactic measures could target.

The ability to orient in the environment relies mainly on the formation and use of a mental representation of the environment, namely a cognitive map. We aim to investigate the exact time that humans develop this complex orientation skill fully. The project involves behavioural studies of children to assess the ability to form and use cognitive maps in both real and virtual surroundings, and is in collaboration with Dr. Susan Graham in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. The project also includes a study in which we assess the effects of a perinatal stroke on the development of the ability to form and make use of congnitive maps; this specific study is in collaboration with Dr. Kara Murias and Dr. Adam Kirton, Director of the Calgary Pediatric Stroke Program at the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute.

This project focuses on creating a comprehensive online assessment of the human ability to orient. The battery includes a variety of short tests in virtual environments evaluating the use of different orientation strategies and the variety of cognitive skills important for orientation. The project is in collaboration with Dr. Richard M. Levy of Planning and Urban Design of the University of Calgary. The testing battery is made available online for public use at www.gettinglost.ca.

The ability to orient in spatial surroundings allows individuals to interact with others and accomplish a variety of tasks that are necessary for daily life functioning. Therefore, topographical orientation skills may be significantly related to numerous psychosocial outcomes and quality of life. In this project, we are investigatingin the unknown relationship between the human ability to orient in the surroundings and the psychosocial outcomes and quality of life of the individuals. Our general hypothesis is that being able to orient and navigate in the environment may have major effects on affect, self-concepts, the quality of social relationships, psychosocial life outcomes, and quality of life measures.  This project is in collaboration with Dr. Tom O'Neil in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary.

This project focuses on investigating the effects of sleep quality and sleep-deprivation on the consolidation of memory for locations and pathways traveled within the environment. The approach includes polygraphic nocturnal sleep recording for analysis of REM and non-REM phases, and neuroimaging approaches in young healthy subjects. The project is in collaboration with Dr. Michele Ferrara in the Psychology Department at the University of L’Aquila, Italy.

Face processing and emotions

How can we recognize our friends and relatives? How the brain supports such a complex human ability? What is the relationship between emotions and brain functioning? We are interested in understanding the brain mechanisms involved while processing facial attributes that may (or may not) refer to the identity of the individual, as well as the processing of emotional stimuli in healthy subjects and in brain-damaged patients and individuals affected by emotional disorders. In addition to faces, we aim at investigating brain activity in processing emotional complex stimuli and its relationship with specific features of personality such as emotional susceptibility, empathy and extraversion. We make use of behavioural and neuroimaging (fMRI, DTI) approaches in order to shed light on these complex issues. Here are some of our current projects.

This project involves the use of behavioural and neuroimaging (fMRI, DTI) aproaches to investigate the ability to process facial features in patients affected by prosopagnosia, i.e. a selective impairment to recognize familiar faces. This project is complementary to the investigation of facial processing in healthy volunteers. Together with an understanding of the type of brain damages responsible for the prosopagnosic defect, the investigation of the facial processing in these patients will help us to shed more light on the complex human ability to recognize people and make sense of faces. The project is in collaboration with Dr. Jason Barton (Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia) and Dr. Bradley Duchaine (Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA).

This project focuses on the effect of sleep quality and sleep-deprivation on human empathy. The approach includes behavioural and neuroimaging (fMRI, fRSI) approaches in young healthy subjects undergoing sleep deprivation and individuals performing night-time jobs. The project is in collaboration with Dr. Michele Ferrara of the Psychology Department of the University of L’Aquila, Italy.