Research Reveals a Surprising First Symptom of Alzheimer's

Can't find your way out of a paper bag? Take note.

first-symptoms-alzheimers
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It's likely happened to you: You've gotten turned around at a place you've been a million times before or had trouble figuring out how to get to your regular salon the one time you don't use GPS — and sometimes that's no big deal. But research has shown that having trouble finding your way around may indicate a much bigger problem for younger people: It could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's Disease.

Problems navigating new surroundings crop up before memory loss, and long before any clinical diagnosis of the disease, according to a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis asked study participants to use patterns and landmarks to make their way through a maze on a computer. The individuals were divided into three groups: early-stage Alzheimer's patients, undiagnosed people with early markers for Alzheimer's (considered "preclinical Alzheimer's"), and a control group of clinically normal people. The study showed that individuals with preclinical Alzheimer's had more difficulty learning the locations of objects.

"These findings suggest that the navigational difficulties experienced by people with preclinical Alzheimer's disease are in part related to trouble acquiring the environmental information," said senior author Denise Head, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences.

While Head cautioned that the study has limitations, she explained that navigational tasks that assess cognitive mapping strategy "could represent a powerful tool for detecting the very earliest Alzheimer's disease-related changes in cognition."

Jason Karlawish, M.D., professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Penn Memory Center, agrees. “This is a good example of research that’s leading us to achieve two important goals: to detect Alzheimer’s Disease before a person is disabled, and to detect it using tests that reflect what we do in the world we live in,” he says. “We might also be able to use these tests to track the disease.

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