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A new perspective on the head direction cell system and spatial behavior

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-33
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Early online date2 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019


The head direction cell system is an interconnected set of brain structures containing neurons whose firing is directionally tuned. The robust representation of allocentric direction by head direction cells suggests that they provide a neural compass for the animal. However, evidence linking head direction cells and spatial behavior has been mixed. Whereas damage to the hippocampus yields profound deficits in a range of spatial tasks, lesions to the head direction cell system often yield milder impairments in spatial behavior. In addition, correlational approaches have shown a correspondence between head direction cells and spatial behavior in some tasks, but not others. These mixed effects may be explained in part by a new view of the head direction cell system arising from recent demonstrations of at least two types of head direction cells: ‘traditional’ cells, and a second class of ‘sensory’ cells driven by polarising features of an environment. The recognition of different kinds of head direction cells now allows a nuanced assessment of this system’s role in guiding navigation.

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