Wiener et al.
make observations that shed light on why older people have more difficulty finding their car in a shopping mall's large parking lot if they exit the mall by a different door than they used to enter it (or follow directions involving an intersection if they approach the intersection from a different direction than the one used for learning them.) From their introduction:
Everyday navigation can be based on different strategies. The hippocampus plays a key role in cognitive map or place strategies that rely on allocentric processing, whereas the parietal cortex and striatal circuits are involved in route or response strategies...To test the hypothesis that cognitive aging not only results in a shift away from allocentric strategies but in a specific preference for beacon-based strategies, we developed a novel experimental paradigm: participants first learned a route along a number of intersections and were then asked to rejoin the original route approaching the intersections from different directions. Trials in which participants approached the intersections from a direction different from that during training (see Fig. 1) allowed us (1) to compare the use and adoption of route-learning strategies between young and older participants and (2) to test for specific preferences for beacon-based strategies in older participants.
Efficient spatial navigation requires not only accurate spatial knowledge but also the selection of appropriate strategies. Using a novel paradigm that allowed us to distinguish between beacon, associative cue, and place strategies, we investigated the effects of cognitive aging on the selection and adoption of navigation strategies in humans. Participants were required to rejoin a previously learned route encountered from an unfamiliar direction. Successful performance required the use of an allocentric place strategy, which was increasingly observed in young participants over six experimental sessions. In contrast, older participants, who were able to recall the route when approaching intersections from the same direction as during encoding, failed to use the correct place strategy when approaching intersections from novel directions. Instead, they continuously used a beacon strategy and showed no evidence of changing their behavior across the six sessions. Given that this bias was already apparent in the first experimental session, the inability to adopt the correct place strategy is not related to an inability to switch from a firmly established response strategy to an allocentric place strategy. Rather, and in line with previous research, age-related deficits in allocentric processing result in shifts in preferred navigation strategies and an overall bias for response strategies. The specific preference for a beacon strategy is discussed in the context of a possible dissociation between beacon-based and associative-cue-based response learning in the striatum, with the latter being more sensitive to age-related changes.
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