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Impaired Sense of Direction Could Be Early Alzheimer's Sign
  • Posted February 29, 2024

Impaired Sense of Direction Could Be Early Alzheimer's Sign

Middle-aged folks who have difficulties navigating their way through space could be at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease years later, a new study finds.

“Very early symptoms of dementia can be subtle and difficult to detect, but problems with navigation are thought to be some of the first changes in Alzheimer's disease," noted Dr. Richard Oakley, associate director of research and innovation at the Alzheimer's Society.

He wasn't involved in the new British research, although the society did help fund the study.

“One in three people born today will go on to develop dementia," Oakley added, "and early and accurate diagnosis of the diseases that cause the condition are vital for people to access the right support, plan for the future and receive appropriate treatment."

The study involved 100 middle-aged people (ages 43 to 66), none of who had any of the standard symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

At the time of the study, they were all about 25 years younger than the expected age of Alzheimer's onset. However, the participants were all thought to be at heightened odds for the illness due to factors such as genetics, family history or lifestyle.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) had the participants strap on a virtual reality (VR) headset and then "navigate" their way through a virtual environment.

Folks already known to be at higher Alzheimer's risk, but with no symptoms and with good scores on other cognitive tests, tended to perform poorly on the VR test, the researchers found.

The effect seemed much stronger in men than women.

The findings, published Feb. 29 in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association, suggest that troubles with direction and moving through complicated spaces may be a harbinger of dementia.

“Our results indicated that this type of navigation behavior change might represent the very earliest diagnostic signal in the Alzheimer's disease continuum -- when people move from being unimpaired to showing manifestation of the disease," said study lead author Dr. Coco Newton, now at UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. She carried out the work while at University of Cambridge.

The gender differences were intriguing, Newton added in a UCL news release, highlighting "the need for further study of the differing vulnerability of men and women to Alzheimer's disease and the importance of taking gender into account for both diagnosis and future treatment.”  

Senior study author Dennis Chan said the VR test used in the study might someday become a standard way of assessing who's at risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Such testing might "improve detection of the clinical onset of Alzheimer's disease, critical for prompt application of treatments," he said.

Still, Oakley cautioned that "this innovative technology is a long way from becoming a diagnostic test."

However, "it does provide more evidence about the role of navigational abilities as an early sign of Alzheimer's disease," he added.  "More work is needed to develop this technology, but it will be exciting to see how this research may offer a way to spot disease-specific changes early and help people living with dementia in future.” 

More information

Find out more about Alzheimer's disease at the Alzheimer's Association.

SOURCE: University College London, news release, Feb. 29, 2024

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