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Pathfinder: open source software for analyzing spatial navigation search strategies

  • Cooke, Matthew B.1, 2
  • O'Leary, Timothy P.1, 2
  • Harris, Phelan1, 2
  • Ma, Ricky1, 2
  • Brown, Richard E.3
  • Snyder, Jason S.1, 2
  • 1 Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T 1Z4, Canada
  • 2 Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, University of British Columbia, Vancovuer, British Columbia, V6T 1Z3, Canada
  • 3 Psychology and Neuroscience Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 4R2, Canada
Published Article
"F1000 Research, Ltd."
Publication Date
Jun 15, 2020
DOI: 10.12688/f1000research.20352.2
PMID: 32025289
PMCID: PMC6974928
PubMed Central


Spatial navigation is a universal behavior that varies depending on goals, experience and available sensory stimuli. Spatial navigational tasks are routinely used to study learning, memory and goal-directed behavior, in both animals and humans. One popular paradigm for testing spatial memory is the Morris water maze, where subjects learn the location of a hidden platform that offers escape from a pool of water. Researchers typically express learning as a function of the latency to escape, though this reveals little about the underlying navigational strategies. Recently, a number of studies have begun to classify water maze search strategies in order to clarify the precise spatial and mnemonic functions of different brain regions, and to identify which aspects of spatial memory are disrupted in disease models. However, despite their usefulness, strategy analyses have not been widely adopted due to the lack of software to automate analyses. To address this need we developed Pathfinder, an open source application for analyzing spatial navigation behaviors. In a representative dataset, we show that Pathfinder effectively characterizes the development of highly-specific spatial search strategies as male and female mice learn a standard spatial water maze. Pathfinder can read data files from commercially- and freely-available software packages, is optimized for classifying search strategies in water maze paradigms, and can also be used to analyze 2D navigation by other species, and in other tasks, as long as timestamped xy coordinates are available. Pathfinder is simple to use, can automatically determine pool and platform geometry, generates heat maps, analyzes navigation with respect to multiple goal locations, and can be updated to accommodate future developments in spatial behavioral analyses. Given these features, Pathfinder may be a useful tool for studying how navigational strategies are regulated by the environment, depend on specific neural circuits, and are altered by pathology.

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