Exploring route learning in individuals with brain injury

Screenshot from the VR route showing proximal landmark (bus stop)

A project team in the School are developing a virtual environment that will allow them to explore route learning in people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Laura Nice who has just obtained a PhD in the School, found that people with TBI seem to have a problem using landmarks that are in the distance (e.g. tall buildings) to help them navigate, but they have less of a problem using closer landmarks along their route, e.g. a post box.  This may be because TBI can cause damage to an area of the brain that is important for navigation called the hippocampus which helps individuals to develop mental maps. 

When individuals use landmarks in the distance they create mental maps based on the spatial relationships between the objects, whereas when they use landmarks along the route they learn by associating a direction with the object e.g. turn left at the bus stop and right at the post office. The team are developing a virtual environment that will allow them to test and manipulate the landmarks that people use to help them navigate and learn a route.  The project will compare performance on route learning using different types of landmarks with a control group as well as people with TBI, and both will also have brain scans at the new Centre for Brain Health. 

The researchers hope that eventually, this will help towards devising better rehabilitation strategies for people with brain injury. 

The project, led by Dr Theresa Powell, is being funded by Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which has awarded a project grant of £28,000.

Laura’s PhD was also sponsored by Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and carried out in collaboration with Headway UK and Professor Bob Stone in the School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering.