If you know someone battling Alzheimer’s Disease, at some point you probably noticed they were having difficulty finding their way around. Maybe they got lost driving around their hometown. Maybe they started using GPS for everyday trips. Or maybe they became easily confused when going somewhere new. As it turns out, this is a pretty common story for Alzheimer’s sufferers. And for many families, these occurrences are often the first clue something might be wrong.
For years these stories were simply anecdotal evidence of cognitive decline. But new research suggests that trouble navigating your surroundings could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Tough to Diagnose
Alzheimer’s is a difficult disease to diagnose. The only way to positively confirm the presence of Alzheimer’s in the brain is to conduct a post-mortem autopsy. Short of that, doctors rely on cognitive and physical tests that both confirms dementia and rules out other possible causes. Unfortunately, these tests aren’t effective when patients are asymptomatic or when they can still hide their symptoms. If there were an effective way to spot Alzheimer’s before many of the symptoms developed, patients could begin treatment earlier. And hopefully, live longer, happier lives.
New Study, New Hope
A recent study in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease offers new hope for an earlier diagnosis. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that, “[l]ong before Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed clinically, increasing difficulties building cognitive maps of new surroundings may herald the eventual clinical onset of the disorder.”
Researchers asked a group of 71 participants – 42 healthy individuals, 13 preclinical Alzheimer’s patients, and 16 people with the documented behavioral symptoms of early stage Alzheimer’s – to complete a series of computer-based virtual mazes. Participants were tested on “how well they could learn and follow a pre-set route and how well they could form and use a cognitive map of the environment.”
At the end of the study, researchers found that:
“When compared with cognitively normal study participants who lacked the cerebrospinal fluid markers of Alzheimer’s, those with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease scored lower on their ability to learn the locations of objects in the environment in relation to each other during the initial study phase.”
To first author Samantha Allison, these results “…suggest a progression such that preclinical Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by hippocampal atrophy and associated cognitive mapping difficulties, particularly during the learning phase.”
The author warns that this study has limitations, mostly due to the small sample size. But the researchers are now testing their findings using a larger study group. If these results are confirmed, they could give doctors a powerful new tool for detecting Alzheimer’s disease earlier than previously possible.