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School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Sensory integration in the brain for spatial navigation

Research environment

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 160 PhD students working on projects in the biological, chemical and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

Project description

The ability to navigate is an essential skill required by both humans and animals. Neural activity in the hippocampus and its adjacent cortical areas has been shown to correlate with the physical location and orientation of an organism, supporting their critical role in spatial learning and memory, as well as navigation planning. However, despite the well-known anatomical connections, it is not clear how an internal unified representation of space, which supports navigation, is generated by integrating sensory inputs. The overall aim of this project is to decipher the neural mechanisms of spatial navigation.

Several spatial cells have been discovered, including place cells in the hippocampus and grid cells in the medial entorhinal cortex. The activity of these cells provides an animal with an internal representation of space as it explores an environment. However, a key unsolved problem is how spatial cells integrate external sensory inputs acquired within an egocentric framework and form internal allocentric spatial representations.

Virtual reality (VR) offers a powerful tool for investigating spatial cognition, allowing environmental manipulations that are impossible in the real world. We have recently developed a two-dimensional VR (2D VR) system for mice with mainly visual and motor/proprioceptive inputs, allowing a close approximation of spatial representation in the real world.

The goal of this project is to study the integration of sensory inputs during spatial navigation using the manipulations in virtual environments. In particular, we will investigate the interaction and communication between the hippocampus and its adjacent cortical areas during spatial learning and planning. The primary techniques that will be used include in vivo electrophysiological multi-channel recording using tetrodes and Neuropixel probes. Theoretical models will be constructed based on the experimental results, which will be used to explain experimental outcomes and make further predictions and hypotheses for future directions.

See more details on Dr Chen's profile.


This project is open to applicants who have obtained or intend to apply for external funding, or who are able to self-fund. In particular, Chinese applicants can apply for funding through the China Scholarship Council (CSC) which will cover tuition fees, and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance and one return flight ticket to China. Please note the deadline for CSC applicants to apply to Queen Mary is 27th January 2021.

For further queries, please contact Dr Chen at


  1. Chen, G., Lu, Y., King, J. A., Cacucci, F. & Burgess, N. Differential influences of environment and self-motion on place and grid cell firing. Nat Commun 10, 630 (2019).
  2. Chen, G., King, J. A., Lu, Y., Cacucci, F. & Burgess, N. Spatial cell firing during virtual navigation of open arenas by head-restrained mice. Elife 7, e34789 (2018).
  3. Chen, G. Identifying posture cells in the brain. Science. 362(6414):520-521. (2018).
  4. Rowland, D. C., Roudi, Y., Moser, M.-B. & Moser, E. I. Ten Years of Grid Cells. Annu Rev Neurosci 39, 1–22 (2015).
  5. Aronov, D., Nevers, R. & Tank, D. W. Mapping of a non-spatial dimension by the hippocampal–entorhinal circuit. Nature 543, 719–722 (2017).
  6. Doeller, C. F., Barry, C. & Burgess, N. Evidence for grid cells in a human memory network. Nature 463, 657–661 (2010).

See also