People suffering from an early stage of Alzheimer’s might have a tougher experience than those who are healthy cognitively in navigating roads with lots of turns and turns, according to a study of a few people.
In the course of their study, researchers surveyed 43 individuals who had moderate cognitive impairment (a condition that may be a sign of Alzheimer’s), 31 cognitively healthy adults in their 20s, and 33 cognitively healthy older adults to take an exercise while wearing virtual reality glasses.
Then, the participants walked along the path using numbered cones that pointed them in the correct direction at every turn. Then, they had to repeat the exercise in three different scenarios to test their skills at navigation the same way as the one they had previously seen: a path that had all the textures of the ground replaced with soft surfaces and, finally, an approach that had no landmarks to direct their steps.
The only people who had difficulty making turns on the route when the conditions changed were those who had mild cognitive impairments, according to findings that were published in Current Biology. They frequently underestimated the amount of turns they needed to make and also experienced a fluctuation in their sense of direction when walking. This was not the case in the case of older or younger people who were cognitively healthy.
Why Does Alzheimer’s Affect a Person’s Ability to Navigate Turns?
“Alzheimer’s disease tends to develop first towards the back and middle of the brain and then slowly spread forward,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, who is a professor and chief executive officer of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas in Dallas.
“Spatial navigation depends on the parietal lobes of the brain, which are in the rear half of the brain and are in the region where the disease often strikes first,” says Dr. Chapman, who wasn’t part of the study.
The study found that participants were required to perform a task called path navigation, which requires brains to update their perception of the physical location of the body situated within its environment in response to its movements, as described by the senior study’s writer Neil Burgess, Ph.D. of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in England. The cognitively healthy perform this in real time when they move around the world.
Since the cognitively healthy younger and older adults walked the same path with ease when sensory and spatial clues were eliminated, the results of the study indicate that the difficulties in navigation seen on the exam are not unique to the disease of Alzheimer’s and not just a normal occurrence of aging, the study’s authors write.
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Researchers Aim to Develop Practical Tests for Early Alzheimer’s
The research was insignificant and was not designed to determine the extent to which Alzheimer’s disease can directly affect navigational issues. Another issue is that the results of tests using virtual reality may differ from what will occur when people use all of their senses to perceive, hear, and feel their surroundings to assist them in navigating the path.
If further studies confirm the findings, this could aid scientists in creating a test to detect early Alzheimer’s disease, according to the statement of lead study writer Andrea Castegnaro, Ph.D. from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
“We aim to develop practical tests that can be easily integrated into clinical settings, considering common constraints such as limited space and time,” Dr. Castegnaro said. “Traditional navigation tests typically require specific requirements that are difficult to fulfill in a clinical setting. Our research focuses on particular areas of navigation, which can be more adapted to the constraints.”
Eschewing Tools Like Google Maps May Help Protect Navigational Skills
Anyone who wants to keep their skills at navigation in top shape can do so by using physical landmarks or maps to trace an itinerary instead of using tools such as Google map, Chapman says. While this won’t stop the process of developing Alzheimer’s disease, it may still provide benefits.
“It is possible to mitigate some of the negative effects of Alzheimer’s by keeping the brain stimulated, including by using spatial abilities as much as possible,” Chapman states. “Whereas it is unlikely that actively stimulating navigational skills will significantly affect the trajectory of the disease, it would be of interest to study how it could keep patients functional longer in terms of staying better oriented in navigating space.”