Scientists discover why our sense of direction fades as we age

Researchers have discovered an explanation for why some elderly people get lost.

Why older people lose their way

Researchers have discovered a possible explanation for why some elderly people can lose their sense of direction and become disoriented.

In the brains of older adults, researchers at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Disease (DZNE) detected an unstable activity in an area that is central for spatial navigation.

It is hoped that in the long term, these findings might open up new ways for detecting Alzheimer’s disease.

To guide us through space in a goal-directed manner, the human brain has to process a flood of information, ranging from visual stimuli to cues provided by the muscular system and our sense of balance. Thus, spatial orientation and navigation are among the most complex abilities of the human mind.

However, these skills often deteriorate as we grow older, which can severely compromise independence and quality of life.

“When you move around an unfamiliar environment, it is perfectly normal to get lost. Yet, this tends to happen more often to older people. So far, we know very little about the underlying neuronal mechanisms of these navigation problems,” says Matthias Stangl, one of the study’s researchers.

“We had the hypothesis that so-called grid cells might be implicated. A major part of the navigational processing is done by these cells. They are specialised neurons located in the brain’s entorhinal cortex. Therefore, we guessed that deficits in grid cell function might be a cause for problems in navigation.”

To test this assumption, Mr Stangl and colleagues performed experiments with 41 healthy young and older adults, who were split in two groups. The group of “young adults” consisted of 20 participants aged between 19 and 30 years, whereas the group of “older adults” comprised 21 individuals aged between 63 and 81 years. Both groups included men and women.

One of the experiments combined functional brain imaging (fMRI) and virtual reality.

The participants had to navigate through computer-generated scenery while their brain activity patterns were monitored.

A second experiment tested the ability for “path integration”. In this setup, participants moved along predefined curved paths. At intermediate stops, they had to estimate their distance and orientation relative to their starting point, but without being able to see or pinpoint its location. This test took place both in real space and in a virtual environment.

“All things considered, young participants did better in navigation, which is in line with previous studies. However, we found an association between decreased navigational performance and deficits in grid cell activity,” says Professor Thomas Wolbers, another DZNE senior scientist.

“Grid cells fired differently when comparing young and old adults. Specifically, firing patterns were less stable over time in older individuals, which indicates that these brain circuits are compromised in old age. This might be a cause of why many senior people tend to have troubles with spatial navigation.”

While weakening navigational skills might occur in healthy adults, such a decline is also considered as one of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

“Assessing navigation performance and grid cell function could possibly facilitate early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders,” says Prof. Wolbers.

How is your sense of direction? Do you resemble this famous Monty Python skit?



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    20th Mar 2018
    Not wrong lol, do it often while driving past where I want to go.
    21st Mar 2018
    Just imagine what it feels like driving on the wrong side of the road in a foreign country where the road signs mean little and local driver behaviour can be unpredictable.
    Can't believe I am about to put myself through this again. Nuts. And yes I can feel the effects of age coming for me!
    20th Mar 2018
    Let's be honest women never had a sense of direction. If a trial was done equal numbers of male and females would be necessary for it to be valid. My sense of direction isn't what it once was and many years from now I expect it will deteriorate to the point where it will little better than your average 20 year old female.
    20th Mar 2018
    That's because you'll be doing 'boy looks' which means you'll never get anywhere or find anything.
    20th Mar 2018
    KSS you're right guys do have a problem finding anything, that's why we have shadow boards and systems for our tools. But I've yet to find a woman who could read a map or navigate. I've also been hiking for years and have never been lost. :)
    20th Mar 2018
    Poor Tib. Such a blinkered life.
    20th Mar 2018
    Poor Rosret won't accept the truth.
    20th Mar 2018
    Tib...Women can multitask and men can't. No one needs to get lost these days thanks to their GPS. Put that compass back in your drawers.
    20th Mar 2018
    Tib, my wife freely admits that maps, street directories, etc are foreign objects never to be touched. However our daughter can read a map, use a compass to find places and if you take her somewhere in a car she could find that place by herself.

    I have met men who have to turn the street directory around to find out how to get somewhere and then generally get lost.
    20th Mar 2018
    Don't give him air time, Rosret, it's just attention seeking.
    20th Mar 2018
    Jackie go hiking and find out your precious GPS will often fail you. Doesn't take much. But if you're in town and you only have to find the pub you should be fine.
    20th Mar 2018
    Captain there is exceptions to every rule. And trust me Triss I don't want your attention. :)
    20th Mar 2018
    Jackie multitasking is what we used to call a lack of focus or a scatterbrain.Anyone can multitask simple jobs like washing up and planning a sandwich. Real jobs take focus.
    20th Mar 2018
    I didn't know old people got lost. I don't see many oldies wandering the streets at night wondering where home is.
    Do we need more problems than we already have!
    20th Mar 2018
    No Roset,
    We do not need more problems than we already have, Unfortunately, the so-called researchers use the elderly as an easy target. I wish they would leave us alone and find answers to preventing all the starving African children that the TV is regularly advertising for funds.

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