Researchers at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn have developed a virtual maze to identify the genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The condition causes progressive mental deterioration during middle or old age. In the new study, scientists found that an at-risk participant’s performance in the virtual maze showed a marked difference when compared to a non-risk participant.
According to the study, published in the journal Science, the area of the brain responsible for navigation, called the entorhinal cortex, is one of the first areas affected in the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. By recording the cells in this area, called the grid cells, scientists are able to predict the chances that the disease would affect participants later in life.
To analyse the performance in the grid cell system in participants aged 18 to 30, the team of researchers recorded their movement patterns through a virtual landscape.
“The risk carriers showed a less stable grid pattern in the entorhinal cortex – many decades before they might develop Alzheimer's dementia,” says graduate student Lukas Kunz.
The study also revealed that risk carriers moved less frequently in the centre of the virtual maze, showing an altered navigation strategy. The risk group showed increased brain activity in the memory system, which researchers say could be the brain’s short-term solution to the reduced grid pattern. But, the increased activity could also contribute to the development of the disease.
“Our studies may contribute to a better understanding of early changes of Alzheimer's dementia,” says head researcher, Nikolai Axmacher. “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.”
The study could help future research, diagnosis, and treatment.
Note: The image used is not the virtual landscape used in the research conducted. Image Source: Flickr