Study suggests reliance on GPS may reduce hippocampus function as we age

November 18, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. Image via Wikipedia.

(PhysOrg.com) -- McGill University researchers have presented three studies suggesting depending on GPS to navigate may have a negative effect on brain function, especially on the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and navigation processes.

There are two major ways of navigating: by or by stimulus-response methods. The spatial method uses landmarks and visual cues to develop cognitive maps that enable us to know where we are and how to get where we want to go. The second method relies on repeatedly traveling by the most efficient route, as though on auto-pilot. The second method will be familiar to those using GPS.

(fMRI) scans were taken of who were GPS and non-GPS users. The subjects accustomed to navigating by spatial means were found to have higher activity and a greater volume of in the than those used to relying on GPS. These adults also did better on a standardized test used in the diagnosis of , which often precedes the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The hippocampus is believed to be involved in memory and in navigation processes such as the ability to find new routes and identify short cuts. It is one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which results in memory loss and difficulties in spatial orientation.

An earlier study by University of London researchers showed that in London taxi drivers, who spend three years learning their way around London by spatial methods rather than GPS), part of their hippocampus is larger than in a control group of non-taxi drivers. See the PhysOrg article: http://www.physorg.com/news140336390.html, for example. As in the current research, the presence of a link does not necessarily show causality, and in the London cabbies, the sheer volume of knowledge they must gather may also be involved.

Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, said the results of the studies suggest using spatial memory regularly may improve the function of the hippocampus and could help ward off cognitive impairment as we age.

Bohbot suggested it may be wise to restrict GPS use to an aid in finding the way to a new destination, but to turn it off on the way back or when going somewhere that is not new. Building cognitive maps takes time and effort, but with the hippocampus, it may be a case of “use it or lose it,” and Bohbot said she does have fears that reducing the use of spatial navigation strategies may lead to earlier onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The McGill University studies were presented at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting last weekend.

More information: Neuroscience's annual meeting: www.sfn.org/am2010/

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6 comments

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DamienS
3 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
Seriously? Even if you have GPS, how often do you need to use it? For most people, the answer would be rarely, as most travel would be in a local and familiar environment. The odd occasion you need to travel to unknown destinations would not have much of an impact on cognitive health.

Also, comparing London taxi drivers to the normal population is a bit of a stretch - it's like comparing elite Olympic athletes to weekend golfers.
dsl5000
4 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
What they should study is cell phone use with decreased hippocampus. lol Heck i only know 2 phone numbers with the age of cell phones. I knew 8-12 phone numbers before cell phones...it's bad.
Eikka
4 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
What they should study is cell phone use with decreased hippocampus. lol Heck i only know 2 phone numbers with the age of cell phones. I knew 8-12 phone numbers before cell phones...it's bad.


On the other hand, I now have to remember 20 different password-login combinations, some of which I have to change every 3 months, the PINs of multiple credit/debit cards, and a couple phone numbers.
krundoloss
4 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
I agree that GPS, among other new technologies, do decrease certain cognitive skills. Remembering phone numbers is a good example of this too. I remember before GPS's I used to plan my route with a paper map and have it all planned out. Now I just rely on the GPS, which is basically just following directions. While we lose some skills with technology, we gain others, such as the ability to scan for information very quickly, or to multitask. We cant let the old school skills die out, though. We might have a post-apocolyptic world to handle one day!
Lordjavathe3rd
not rated yet Nov 18, 2010
If you think this is bad, imagine the amount of brain power we lost when oral tradition went the way of the dodo. Seriously mr.neuro scientist, what do you do all day in your office?
sharos
not rated yet Dec 16, 2010
Hello, my name is Rosalind Sham, and I work with Dr Veronique Bohbot at the Research Centre of the Douglas Institute. We appreciate your interest in our research, however, Dr. Bohbot never did research on the use or non-use of GPS. If you need more explanations, you are welcome to take a look at this press release on our web site: douglas.qc.ca/news/1072?locale=en

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