Poor navigation skills may signal Alzheimer’s disease

A new study suggests having difficulty remembering how to get around in new surroundings could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

You’re in a new city and need to get around. How will you get from point A to point B? In 2016, that’s not too difficult to figure out, thanks to navigation apps like Google Maps. But if directions are your weak spot, pump the brakes.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis suggest that people who have trouble remembering directions in new surroundings may be showing early symptoms of the progressive disease that affects memory.

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2016 Facts & Figures Report, and as many as 16 million will likely have the disease by 2050.

They based their study on 16 people with symptoms of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, 13 people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease – or brain changes that appear before symptoms develop – and 42 healthy controls.

They tested participants’ ability to remember how to get around a virtual maze on a computer using interconnected hallways with four wallpaper patterns and 20 landmarks. Specifically, the participants were tested on how well they could learn and follow the pre-set route and how well they could learn to create and use a mental map of the maze.

Participants with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease showed no difficulty learning the pre-set route, but had significant trouble creating a mental map of the maze. Still, they eventually learned to get over this hurdle and managed to get around just as well as the control group. The early-stage group struggled with both tasks.

Previous studies have also showed that an area of the brain affected by the disease at an early stage — the entorhinal cortex — is made up of cells that fire in a spatial grid pattern, and is crucial for navigation. Researchers have claimed that young people with an increased Alzheimer’s risk ‘showed a less stable grid pattern in the entorhinal cortex — many decades before they might develop Alzheimer’s dementia’

These findings suggest that navigational tasks designed to assess a mental mapping strategy could represent a powerful new tool for detecting the very earliest Alzheimer’s disease-related changes in cognition,” the study’s author Denise Head, who is the associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University, told UPI.

The researchers also noted that having difficulty navigating through new neighborhoods does not necessarily signal Alzheimer’s development.

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