It appears that having difficulties finding your way might be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.

A recent study has found that people who have difficulties remembering how to get to different places might be prone to Alzheimer’s disease. If future research supports these results, the information could greatly help doctors worldwide diagnose the terrible condition long before the patients actually develop memory problems.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Washington University from St. Louis and involved sixteen participants with symptoms of Alzheimer’s at an early stage. Additionally, thirteen other individuals who presented signs of the preclinical form of the disease in their brain fluid and cerebrospinal (spinal cord) fluid took part in the test. They were joined by 42 persons without such cerebrospinal markers.

Preclinical Alzheimer’s disease consists of changes in the brain that take place before the actual development of the condition’s symptoms, which usually lead to the diagnosis.

In more details, the study consisted of testing the memory abilities of the participants of navigating through a maze on a computer. The maze presented various interconnected hallways, twenty landmarks, and four wallpaper patterns. In this respect, the researchers assessed two skills: the ability to create a map of the maze inside their minds, and the capability of learning and following a route that was previously set.

The results published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that people with preclinical Alzheimer’s had no issues learning this route. However, they presented great difficulties in creating the mental map. The surprise came after repeated tries, time during which this group managed to overcome the deficit and performed almost as well as the other group.

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According to senior author of the study and associate professor of brain and psychological sciences Denise Head,

“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.”

While such problems with creating mental maps have been documented in early stage Alzheimer’s patients, this is the first time the phenomenon was studied in normal people who could also develop later on the condition. The researchers concluded that the difficulties in finding our way or the apparition of cerebrospinal fluid markers do not necessarily mean the person will develop Alzheimer’s. However, future research should concentrate on the link between cognitive mapping deficits and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in a symptomatic stage.

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