A new study conducted by researchers from St. Louis’ Washington University shows that a bad sense of direction when navigating in new places may be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study divided people into groups, including 16 people with early stage Alzheimer’s and 13 with preclinical Alzheimer’s, measured against a control group of 42 people who showed no signs of the disease. All participants were asked to find their way through a virtual maze on a computer. The study aimed to find how well participants could memorize new routes, and how well they could visualise their own mental map of the maze.
According to a report in UPI, Denise Heard, who is associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, and also the study’s senior author said that their findings could ‘represent a powerful new tool for detecting the very earliest Alzheimer’s disease-related changes in cognition’.
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.
This report shows a diagram of the hippocampus where Alzheimer’s is usually first found – the part of the brain linked to spatial awareness and memory. This could be the reason behind the study’s findings. The researchers at Washington have said that the next step in Alzheimer’s research should be to figure out the implications of ‘cognitive mapping deficits in individuals’.
Future research should examine whether cognitive mapping deficits in individuals in preclinical Alzheimer’s are associated with an increased risk of developing symptomatic Alzheimer’s.
The researchers have also noted that their findings may be the key to diagnosing a person with the disease before the obvious warning signs – such as declining memory and problem solving skills are seen. Alzheimer’s disease has no cure yet. Previously research has also shown that ‘smell tests’ could possibly help find Alzheimer’s disease in humans.