Older Adults Show Reduced Spatial Precision but Preserved Strategy-Use During Spatial Navigation Involving Body-Based Cues

Andrew S. McAvan, Yu Karen Du, Alexis Oyao, Stephanie Doner, Matthew D. Grilli, Arne Ekstrom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Older adults typically perform worse on spatial navigation tasks, although whether this is due to degradation of memory or an impairment in using specific strategies has yet to be determined. An issue with some past studies is that older adults are tested on desktop-based virtual reality: a technology many report lacking familiarity with. Even when controlling for familiarity, these paradigms reduce the information-rich, three-dimensional experience of navigating to a simple two-dimensional task that utilizes a mouse and keyboard (or joystick) as means for ambulation. Here, we utilize a wireless head-mounted display and free ambulation to create a fully immersive virtual Morris water maze in which we compare the navigation of older and younger adults. Older and younger adults learned the locations of hidden targets from same and different start points. Across different conditions tested, older adults remembered target locations less precisely compared to younger adults. Importantly, however, they performed comparably from the same viewpoint as a switched viewpoint, suggesting that they could generalize their memory for the location of a hidden target given a new point of view. When we implicitly moved one of the distal cues to determine whether older adults used an allocentric (multiple landmarks) or beaconing (single landmark) strategy to remember the hidden target, both older and younger adults showed comparable degrees of reliance on allocentric and beacon cues. These findings support the hypothesis that while older adults have less precise spatial memories, they maintain the ability to utilize various strategies when navigating.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number640188
JournalFrontiers in Aging Neuroscience
StatePublished - Apr 12 2021


  • aging
  • allocentric
  • egocentric
  • impairment
  • spatial navigation
  • spatial precision
  • virtual reality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aging
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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