Scientists Reveal Promising Way to Stave Off Cognitive Decline

The way we explore our environment could contribute to healthier brain aging, a new study suggests. The findings could offer new methods to prevent cognitive decline, as well as early biomarkers for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

Spatial navigation is a skill we use daily and tends to decline with age. Historically, this decline in navigational abilities was attributed to a deterioration in spatial memory. But according to new research, it could also be due to changes in the way we explore new environments.

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“Compared to younger individuals, middle-aged individuals demonstrate less exploration when learning a new maze environment and appear to prioritize learning specific important locations within the maze, as opposed to to the overall layout of the maze”, Vaisakh Puthusseryppady, postdoctoral researcher at the University. of California, Irvine, said in a statement.

In a new study published in the journal Frontiers in the neuroscience of agingPuthusseryppady and his colleagues recruited a group of 87 middle-aged volunteers with an average age of 50 years and 50 young volunteers with an average age of 19 years. Volunteers were then invited to explore and learn to navigate a virtual reality maze.

The maze consisted of corridors and intersections separated by hedges, with distinctive objects scattered in strategic locations. After freely exploring the maze, volunteers had to navigate between two randomly chosen objects.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, younger volunteers were, on average, more successful in finding their way. But what really stands out are the differences in how younger and older participants learn to move around in their new environment.

“Compared to younger individuals, middle-aged individuals explored the maze environment less because they traveled less distance, stopped longer at decision points, and visited more objects than younger individuals,” Mary Hegarty, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-corresponding author of the paper, said in a statement.

Image of a man reading a map. The way we explore new environments changes with age, a new study suggests. These results could have implications for preventing cognitive decline.


These differences were so large that researchers were able to use artificial intelligence to accurately predict which group (young or middle-aged) each individual belonged to based solely on their navigation learning patterns.

So why do we see this change in exploratory behavior as we age? According to researchers, this might have something to do with how the navigation networks in our brains change as we age. If so, they hypothesized that we might be able to train older adults to maintain “younger” brain networks through simple navigation exercises.

“If we were to train middle-aged people to better explore new environments – with an emphasis on traveling greater distances, visiting trails that connect the environment, in more extensive ways – this could lead to improvements in their spatial memory, helping to slow the decline of their cognitive abilities,” co-author Daniela Cossio, a Ph.D. student at UC Irvine, said in a statement.

These findings could also have implications for age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are currently studying whether these types of changes in exploration behavior can be identified in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, as well as in those who actually have it,” Elizabeth Chrastil, one of the corresponding authors and associate professor at the same institute, said in a statement.

“We anticipate that altered exploration behavior may ultimately become a new clinical marker of early cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease.”

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