Human brain dynamics during multitasking physical navigation

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Spatial navigation is an essential skill that helps one to keep track of their location and orientation and navigate efficiently through the environment. Investigating spatial cognitive processing can be beneficial by rendering a mechanism underlying diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, which might be diagnosed based on impairments in spatial tests long before established diagnostic criteria. Furthermore, navigation in real-life often involves multiple cognitive processes, such as landmark encoding, cognitive map anchoring, and goal-oriented planning, even in the simplest situation. Thus, investigating spatial navigation under multitasking situation might provide more insight of brain dynamics underlying navigation in our daily activities. However, most studies on active physical navigation in 3D space are based on animal research, or the studies are confined to a specific patient population with limited movement ranges. These limitations hinder the generalization of findings in stationary laboratory set-ups to active navigation in healthy human participants. In this work, we investigated human brain dynamics while multitasking in active navigation tasks in a more natural set-up that could be used with healthy populations. We performed simulated driving and physical spatial navigation task experiments, which mimic typical navigation tasks in our daily lives. Participants performed the tasks in a virtual environment, while their brain signal was measured simultaneously. We investigated brain dynamics of concurrent multitasking in the simulated driving experiment, where participants performed the driving task, and dynamic attention shifting task concurrently. We then further investigated brain dynamics in a physical spatial navigation experiment, where participants actively ambulated from a location to several others. We found an increase in the information flow of brain connectivity in the period of concurrent task response in the simulated driving experiment. Furthermore, in the same experiment, we observed an increase in frontal beta during the secondary task response. We then obtained a significant modulation of theta oscillations in the retrosplenial complex (RSC) during heading changes in the physical spatial navigation experiment; this is an essential mechanism for heading computation and generating the grid cell signal. Finally, we reported that local information processing in the RSC increases linearly with the navigation load level. The findings unpack the insight of brain dynamics and offer unprecedented benefits for estimating cognitive load in active navigation.
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