A recent study suggests that difficulty of navigating in a new and unfamiliar environment could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis made a small-scale study based on trials that included people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, preclinical Alzheimer’s or a condition where people manifest brain changes that occur before the classical symptoms, and with completely healthy people.
The team of researchers studied a group of 16 people with signs of early onset of Alzheimer’s, another group of13 people who doesn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s but showed preclinical biomarkers in fluid taken from the brain and spinal cord, and a third group of 42 people without any of the cerebrospinal features.
Researchers needed to test two specific skills linked to navigations: the ability to learn and follow a pre-set route and the ability to create a mental map and use it properly. Researchers asked the participants to go through a virtual maze on a computer designed with interconnected hallways, four different wallpapers, and 20 landmarks to help people to situate.
The finding revealed that the group with preclinical Alzheimer’s completed the task of remembering the pre-set route easily, but they had serious difficulties creating a mental map of the maze. Still, they were able to complete the task almost as well as the control group in the following tests.
“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,” said Denise Head, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.
The findings are not conclusive
Cerebrospinal fluid features aren’t necessarily a symptom of early Alzheimer’s disease, and the same happens with the inability of someone to remember and navigate well in new environments, affirmed Head. More tests need to be run to determinate whether cognitive mapping problems in people diagnosed with preclinical Alzheimer’s is linked to classical Alzheimer’s.
The Alzheimer’s disease is a breakdown of neural connections in the brain and it often results in a severe inability to remember even the most basic information.
Researchers hope that the findings may help doctors to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease before more pronounce symptoms show.