If You Get Lost on Vacation, Early Alzheimer’s May Be to Blame

April 27, 2016 Updated: October 5, 2018

If you have trouble finding your way around when visiting a new city, it may be an early indication of Alzheimer’s disease.

Worsening of the ability to create a mental map goes hand in hand with changes in the brain that researchers believe are the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from Washington University in St. Louis.

Researchers asked three groups of people to learn their way around a virtual maze on a computer. The maze was divided into areas with four different wallpaper colors and it had 20 landmarks.

The first group consisted of 16 people with documented behavioral symptoms of early stage Alzheimer’s.

The second group of 13 people didn’t exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but in the fluid taken from the spine and brain they had biomarkers that scientists believe make them likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

The third group of 42 had no signs of Alzheimer’s whatsoever.

All of them were asked to learn and follow a pre-set route in the maze and also to learn their way around the maze in general. Both tasks seem similar, but we actually use different areas of the brain to complete them. The former requires following the route as we remember it from one landmark to another. The latter requires us to create a mental map of our surroundings and them plan the best route within it to get to the desired destination.

The people with biomarkers of Alzheimer’s learned the pre-set route just as well as their healthy counterparts. However, it took them longer to learn to navigate the maze in general, being able to locate objects in the environment in relation to each other.

People with clear problems of early Alzheimer’s, like memory lapses, had problems with both tasks.

The study authors believe this discovery may help us to detect Alzheimer’s earlier.

“These findings suggest that navigational tasks designed to assess a cognitive mapping strategy could represent a powerful tool for detecting the very earliest Alzheimer’s disease-related changes in cognition,” said senior author Denise Head, associate professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences.

The authors caution that their research was limited. For one, they only had 71 participants. Also, their results rely on the group with Alzheimer’s-related biomarkers. But, they note, not everyone with such biomarkers actually develops Alzheimer’s disease.

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