Changes in Search Path Complexity and Length During Learning of a Virtual Water Maze: Age Differences and Differential Associations with Hippocampal Subfield Volumes

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Impairment of hippocampus-dependent cognitive processes has been proposed to underlie age-related deficits in navigation. Animal studies suggest a differential role of hippocampal subfields in various aspects of navigation, but that hypothesis has not been tested in humans. In this study, we examined the association between volume of hippocampal subfields and age differences in virtual spatial navigation. In a sample of 65 healthy adults (age 19–75 years), advanced age was associated with a slower rate of improvement operationalized as shortening of the search path over 25 learning trials on a virtual Morris water maze task. The deficits were partially explained by greater complexity of older adults' search paths. Larger subiculum and entorhinal cortex volumes were associated with a faster decrease in search path complexity, which in turn explained faster shortening of search distance. Larger Cornu Ammonis (CA)1–2 volume was associated with faster distance shortening, but not in path complexity reduction. Age differences in regional volumes collectively accounted for 23% of the age-related variance in navigation learning. Independent of subfield volumes, advanced age was associated with poorer performance across all trials, even after reaching the asymptote. Thus, subiculum and CA1–2 volumes were associated with speed of acquisition, but not magnitude of gains in virtual maze navigation.

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