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‘Taxi Brains’ study could uncover critical insights into early detection of Alzheimer’s disease

A new study involving London taxi drivers is set to begin with the hope that it may uncover critical insights into the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.

The project, called ‘Taxi Brains’, will help scientists fight dementia with the help of London’s licenced taxi drivers' brains.

Cabbies brains are larger in a region that shrinks early in Alzheimer’s disease; the hippocampus. Scientists hope that understanding which parts of the hippocampus get bigger in relation to navigation ability will provide critical insights needed to help develop diagnostics for the earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease.

Early diagnosis will help doctors treat patients sooner, limiting the disease and improving quality of life.

The project is run by the research group of Professor Hugo Spiers, which is based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. The project group are now asking for more of the 20,000 ‘All London’ cabbies to take part in a simple test based around their navigation skill and have a brain scan.

Alzheimer’s Research UK and Ordnance Survey have joined forces to fund the project and volunteers will be compensated for any parking costs and receive £30 and a picture of their brain for taking part.

Robert Lorden (pictured), a London Cabbie and author of ‘The Knowledge: How to train your brain like a London cabbie’, said: “This is such a friendly team. It’s been a joy to help them with this work and feel that I’m able to use my brain to help scientists combat dementia.”

A spokesperson from the Taxi Brains research group wrote on their website: Navigation and the ability to plan routes between places is an important skill to have, especially in a complex city like London.

“Nowadays, it seems very convenient for many people to rely on GPS and automated instructions instead of their own ability to find a route to a destination.

“However, there is a group of expert navigators in London, the licensed London taxi drivers, who resist these technologies and take pride in their own ability to plan routes between places for their customers. Solely based on what is known as the Knowledge of London and acquired through years of training in specific Knowledge Schools, black cab drivers learn to navigate in a city with a street network that contains about 58,000 streets.

“This unique ability to reliably and flexibly adapt to situational factors and plan routes on a daily basis, has a remarkable impact on their brains.

“In a study, researchers found that, for taxi drivers, the part of the brain that is involved in spatial navigation, the so called hippocampus, is larger than for non taxi drivers (Maguire et al., 2000).

“At the same time, the hippocampus seems to be an area affected for people suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia, which can explain why they become disoriented and have increasing difficulties finding their way as the disease progresses (Tu et al. 2015).”


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