Staff member

Diogo Pata Santos

Postdoctoral Researcher
Synthetic, Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems (SPECS)

Staff member publications

When learning new environments, rats often pause at decision points and look back and forth over their possible trajectories as if they were imagining the future outcome of their actions, a behavior termed “Vicarious trial and error” (VTE). As the animal learns the environmental configuration, rats change from deliberative to habitual behavior, and VTE tends to disappear, suggesting a functional relevance in the early stages of learning. Despite the extensive research on spatial navigation, learning and VTE in the rat model, fewer studies have focused on humans. Here, we tested whether head-scanning behaviors that humans typically exhibit during spatial navigation are as predictive of spatial learning as in the rat. Subjects performed a goal-oriented virtual navigation task in a symmetric environment. Spatial learning was assessed through the analysis of trajectories, timings, and head orientations, under habitual and deliberative spatial navigation conditions. As expected, we found that trajectory length and duration decreased with the trial number, implying that subjects learned the spatial configuration of the environment over trials. Interestingly, IdPhi (a standard metric of VTE) also decreased with the trial number, suggesting that humans benefit from the same head-orientation scanning behavior as rats at spatial decision-points. Moreover, IdPhi captured exclusively at the first decision-point of each trial, was correlated with trial trajectory duration and length. Our findings demonstrate that in VTE is a signature of the stage of spatial learning in humans, and can be used to predict performance in navigation tasks with high accuracy.

Keywords: Deliberation, Habitual, Hippocampus, Navigation, Spatial decision-making

Insects are great explorers, able to navigate through long-distance trajectories and successfully find their way back. Their navigational routes cross dynamic environments suggesting adaptation to novel configurations. Arthropods and vertebrates share neural organizational principles and it has been shown that rodents modulate their neural spatial representation accordingly with environmental changes. However, it is unclear whether insects reflexively adapt to environmental changes or retain memory traces of previously explored situations. We sought to disambiguate between insect behavior in environmental novel situations and reconfiguration conditions. An immersive mixed-reality multi-sensory setup was built to replicate multi-sensory cues. We have designed an experimental setup where female crickets Gryllus Bimaculatus were trained to move towards paired auditory and visual cues during primarily phonotactic driven behavior. We hypothesized that insects were capable of identifying sensory modifications in known environments. Our results show that, regardless of the animal’s history, novel situation conditions did not compromise the animals performance and navigational directionality towards a new target location. However, in trials where visual and auditory stimuli were spatially decoupled, the animals heading variability towards a previously known position significantly increased. Our findings showed that crickets can behaviorally manifest environmental reconfiguration, suggesting the encoding for spatial representation.

Keywords: Insect, Memory, Navigation, Spatial representation

Many hippocampal cell types are characterized by a progressive increase in scale along the dorsal-to-ventral axis, such as in the cases of head-direction, grid and place cells. Also located in the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC), border cells would be expected to benefit from such scale modulations. However, this phenomenon has not been experimentally observed. Grid cells in the MEC of mammals integrate velocity related signals to map the environment with characteristic hexagonal tessellation patterns. Due to the noisy nature of these input signals, path integration processes tend to accumulate errors as animals explore the environment, leading to a loss of grid-like activity. It has been suggested that border-to-grid cells' associations minimize the accumulated grid cells' error when rodents explore enclosures. Thus, the border-grid interaction for error minimization is a suitable scenario to study the effects of border cell scaling within the context of spatial representation. In this study, we computationally address the question of (i) border cells' scale from the perspective of their role in maintaining the regularity of grid cells' firing fields, as well as (ii) what are the underlying mechanisms of grid-border associations relative to the scales of both grid and border cells. Our results suggest that for optimal contribution to grid cells' error minimization, border cells should express smaller firing fields relative to those of the associated grid cells, which is consistent with the hypothesis of border cells functioning as spatial anchoring signals.

Keywords: Border cells, Error minimization, Grid cells, Navigation, Path integration