Dissociation of spatial memory systems in Williams syndrome

Mathilde Bostelmann, Emilie Fragnière, Floriana Costanzo, Silvia Di Vara, Deny Menghini, Stefano Vicari, Pierre Lavenex, Pamela Banta Lavenex

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Williams syndrome (WS), a genetic deletion syndrome, is characterized by severe visuospatial deficits affecting performance on both tabletop spatial tasks and on tasks which assess orientation and navigation. Nevertheless, previous studies of WS spatial capacities have ignored the fact that two different spatial memory systems are believed to contribute parallel spatial representations supporting navigation. The place learning system depends on the hippocampal formation and creates flexible relational representations of the environment, also known as cognitive maps. The spatial response learning system depends on the striatum and creates fixed stimulus-response representations, also known as habits. Indeed, no study assessing WS spatial competence has used tasks which selectively target these two spatial memory systems. Here, we report that individuals with WS exhibit a dissociation in their spatial abilities subserved by these two memory systems. As compared to typically developing (TD) children in the same mental age range, place learning performance was impaired in individuals with WS. In contrast, their spatial response learning performance was facilitated. Our findings in individuals with WS and TD children suggest that place learning and response learning interact competitively to control the behavioral strategies normally used to support human spatial navigation. Our findings further suggest that the neural pathways supporting place learning may be affected by the genetic deletion that characterizes WS, whereas those supporting response learning may be relatively preserved. The dissociation observed between these two spatial memory systems provides a coherent theoretical framework to characterize the spatial abilities of individuals with WS, and may lead to the development of new learning strategies based on their facilitated response learning abilities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1192-1203
Number of pages12
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1 2017


  • genetic disorder
  • hippocampus
  • place learning
  • response learning
  • striatum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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