Getting Lost: A Newly Discovered Developmental Brain Disorder

September 25, 2008 Updated: October 1, 2015

Researchers have discovered that those with a developmental topographical disorder can get lost in their neighbourhood or even in their own home.  (Photos.com)
Researchers have discovered that those with a developmental topographical disorder can get lost in their neighbourhood or even in their own home. (Photos.com)

Getting lost often, even in familiar places? Your cognitive map may be out of whack.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute recently completed a study on the first case of a patient who is unable to orient within any environment.

And they believe that there are others in the general population who may be affected by this developmental topographical disorder.

Published in the journal Neuropsychologia, the study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) together with behavioural studies to assess and characterize the “navigational deficiencies” of the patient.

Although not suffering from apparent brain damage or cognitive impairment, the patient is completely unable to orient within the environment, getting lost even within the neighborhood where the patient lived for many years, according to a news release.

"Imagine not being able to do the simplest of tasks such as finding your way
home from the grocery store," said Guisseppe Iaria, a UBC Faculty of Medicine and VCH postdoctoral fellow who is affiliated with the Brain Research Centre.

"Navigating and orienting in an environment are complex cognitive skills, involving parts of the brain used for memory, attention, perception, and decision-making. It also requires using at least two distinct types of memory systems," Iaria said in the release.

While the procedural memory system involves using landmarks, distances, or following stereotyped movements to move between locations, the spatial memory system is more complex.

A person creates a “cognitive map” when moving through an environment, whether it is familiar or not. The ability to "create" and "read" these cognitive maps enables a person to navigate and follow a route without getting lost.

It is known that malformations or lesions in parts of the brain important for navigation cause difficulties. While no such defects or lesions in this patient's brain were detected, a series of behavioural tests revealed that the patient's problem was due to a specific inability to form cognitive maps.

"We suspect that this patient is not unique, and that there are others suffering varying degrees of selective developmental topographical disorientation," said Dr. Jason Barton, Canada Research Chair and director of the Human Vision and Eye Movement Laboratory where the patient was studied.'

"They might have a lifelong story of episodes like getting lost in their own house or neighbourhood, at school or at work, and having to rely on others for directions. In extreme circumstances, this can even lead to social isolation."

The researchers have designed a website specifically to inform people about orientation skills and reach others who experience topographical disorientation. This will help researchers to better understand the disorder and to develop rehabilitation treatments that may help affected individuals develop orientation skills.

More information is available at www.gettinglost.ca