Movement of biological organisms is frequently initiated in response to a diffusible or otherwise transported signal, and in its simplest form this movement can be described by a diffusion equation with an advection term. In systems in which the signal is localized in space the question arises as to whether aggregation of a population of indirectly-interacting organisms, or localization of a single organism, is possible under suitable hypotheses on the transition rules and the production of a control species that modulates the transition rates. It has been shown  that continuum approximations of reinforced random walks show aggregation and even blowup, but the connections between solutions of the continuum equations and of the master equation for the corresponding lattice walk were not studied. Using variational techniques and the existence of a Lyapunov functional, we study these connections here for certain simplified versions of the model studied earlier. This is done by relating knowledge about the shape of the minimizers of a variational problem to the asymptotic spatial structure of the solution. © 2004 Cambridge University Press.