Alzheimer’s gene linked to poor navigation skills early in life

News & Analysis

27th October 2015

According to research published in the journal Science, young adults with a genetically increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease have altered activation patterns in a brain region that is crucial for spatial navigation.

An area of the brain affected by the disease at an early stage — the entorhinal cortex — is made up of cells that fire in a spatial grid pattern, and is crucial for navigation. The research reveals that young people with an increased Alzheimer’s risk ‘showed a less stable grid pattern in the entorhinal cortex — many decades before they might develop Alzheimer’s dementia’, according to Lukas Kunz, who conducted the experiment at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Test subjects had their brains analysed as they navigated a virtual landscape. It was found that increased risk carriers spent less time in the centre of the arena, which demonstrates an altered strategy for navigation.

In the high risk test group, brain activity in the memory system was generally increased, and the researchers believe this could be the brain’s way of compensating for the reduced effectiveness of the entorhinal cortex. They say this increased strain could contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s dementia in the long term.

Professor Nikolai Axmacher, who carried out the research, said: ‘Our studies may contribute to a better understanding of early changes of Alzheimer’s dementia. Now, it has to be verified if such changes also occur in older people at an early stage of Alzheimer’s dementia and if they can be affected by the application of drugs.’