Durham News for Seniors: Poor Navigation Skills May Signal Alzheimer’s Disease

June 9, 2016

Remembering your way around in new surroundings could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s Disease. Problems with the ability to mentally map a location are well-documented in patients with early stage Alzheimer’s. Having poor navigation skills had not been studied in Alzheimer’s patients until a group of researchers at Washington University recently tested a group of people with the disease and a control group. The study included 16 people with early stage Alzheimer’s, 13 normal people with signs of preclinical Alzheimer’s fluid from the brain and spinal cord and 42 from a control group. Preclinical Alzheimer’s refers to brain changes that occur before symptoms develop and lead to Alzheimer’s.

The participants were tested on how to navigate a virtual maze on a computer. The skills tested measured how well the person could learn and follow a pre-set route and how they created a mental map of the maze. The preclinical group had trouble creating a mental map of the maze, but eventually overcame the obstacle and performed as well as the control group. The early stage group struggled with both tasks. These findings suggest that navigational tasks designed to assess mapping strategy could represent a new tool for detecting the very early changes in the Alzheimer’s brain. Future research could examine whether cognitive mapping deficits are symptomatic of Alzheimer’s. However, the presence of cerebrospinal fluid does not mean that you are destined to develop the disease nor does difficulty finding your way around a new neighborhood.

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