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Study finds how older adults' navigation skills change as their minds get worse

Being able to find and follow a route is a daily skill that varies from person to person depending on their practice, cognitive ability, and the environment they grew up in. As individuals age, their spatial memory typically deteriorates due to changes in brain structure and function. However, new research suggests that changes in how people explore new places may also be a factor in this decline.

Changes in middle-aged humans' exploration behaviour were seen for the first time in a study published in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience. This could have clinical applications.

A postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, named Dr. Vaisakh Puthusseryppady said, "Compared to younger people, middle-aged people generally explore less when learning a new maze environment and seem to prioritise learning specific important locations in the maze rather than the overall maze layout."

The study recruited 87 middle-aged (average age 50) and 50 young (average age 19) volunteers who had no history of neurological or psychiatric illness. The participants navigated a virtual reality maze filled with crossroads, hallways, and unique objects that functioned as landmarks. During the exploration phase, they went through the maze at their own pace to find the objects. During the wayfinding phase, they had 45 seconds to get from one randomly chosen object to the other.

Most of the time, young people who took part did better. According to Dr. Mary Hegarty, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, middle-aged people explored the maze environment less than younger people because they went shorter distances, stopped for longer periods of time at decision points, and looked at more objects than younger people. Researchers were able to use AI to tell whether a participant was young or middle-aged based on these differences.

The middle-aged participants' lessened exploration may have something to do with changes that happen with age in the brain's navigation network, like the medial temporal and parietal lobes. The authors think that these results could lead to training programmes that help middle-aged adults keep their cognitive abilities and improve their ability to find their way around.

Daniela Cossio, a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of the paper, said, "If we were to train middle-aged people to explore new environments better—with a focus on travelling longer distances and visiting paths that connect the environment in a more spread-out way—this might lead to improvements in their spatial memory, which would help slow down their cognitive decline."

Dr. Elizabeth Chrastil, an associate professor at the same school, said, "We are currently looking into whether these kinds of changes in exploration behaviour can be found in people who are at risk of Alzheimer's Disease as well as people who already have Alzheimer's." We believe that altered exploration behavior could potentially serve as a novel method for diagnosing early cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's.

The results of this study are a big step towards understanding the connection between navigation skills and cognitive decline. This could lead to early interventions and new signs of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

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