Age Matters Clinic


Toronto Geriatric Assessment and Memory Clinic

Navigating a Virtual Maze May Predict Alzheimer's

Alzheimer disease is a progressive disease with no cure (Yet...). It affects millions of individuals of all races and cultures globally. Although the disorder has been intensely studied over the past 2 decades, researchers have had very limited success in both the prevention and treatment of the disorder. All the treatments presently available only help ease the symptoms for a while. In addition, the medications also have adverse effects that are not well tolerated. The course of Alzheimer's disease is unpredictable. In most people it progresses relentlessly but in a few individuals it may remain stable. The majority of individuals with alzheimer's disorder eventually end up in a long term facility or a nursing home. Since there is no cure for the disorder, research is now being directed at making an early diagnosis. It is known that if the disease is diagnosed early, then the prognosis is much better because the treatments tends to work much better in the early than the later stages of the disease.

Over the years, several blood and radiological tests have been developed to predict the onset of Alzheimer disease. Unfortunately, none of these tests are 100% sensitive and often fail to predict the onset of the disorder. Now there is a new study from Germany which indicates that navigating a virtual maze may predict the chances of developing Alzheimer disease in future. In many individuals with Alzheimer disease, there is a distortion of reality that often leads to confusion, inability to remember and behavior changes- all of which create havoc in the individual and the family.

In their research, the German scientists asked young people to find their way through a virtual maze and also complete tasks like collecting virtual objects and placing then back in the same place a little later. They observed that individuals who were at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease (those who carried the variant of the APOE gene) performed as well as normal people, but the at risk group not only behaved differently but also used a different part of the brain to perform the same tasks. The studies suggest that people at risk for Alzheimer's disease may be using either the "grid system" or an alternative part of the brain to function and behave. These grid like representations refer to a special set of brain cells in a specific part of the brain used primarily for navigation and memory. The conclusion of the study was that properly functioning grid cells correlated with human spatial behavior.

These researchers hope that this virtual reality test may help predict who develops the disease in future. This test is now helping researchers develop more insight into Alzheimer's disease and how it progresses. This may be a step towards developing therapies that may prevent the progression of the disorder