Scientists Are Studying the Brains of London Cabbies to Better Understand Alzheimer’s

Many of us regularly hear “recalculating,” or other sounds of apparent dismay, from our GPS apps as we drive in our own neighborhoods. Hey, it’s understandable. We don’t always take the same routes. However, there is a group of people who would likely never elicit a GPS sigh while they’re driving: London cabbies, who successfully navigate the expansive city via memory. A new study is using these directionally-gifted brains to find some clues about Alzheimer’s.

Before taking on the job, London cabbies have to pass a very extensive test called The Knowledge. The process takes an average of two to four years to complete, depending on how much of their time a trainee is devoting to it. Those who pass will have memorized 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, a stretch that includes some 26,000 streets. It’s not just the routes, though. They also need to learn about 100,000 places of interest.

PHOTO: PIXABAY/ANDRIUSM

This education is apparently good for the brain, as studies have found the hippocampus actually grows in a cabbie. In 2011, a team led by Eleanor Mcguire from University College London discovered that Knowledge trainees showed demonstrable growth in their posterior hippocampi as they learned.

This information led a new team from University College London to see if studying cabbie brains could help with Alzheimer’s, as the hippocampus shrinks with disease progression. Thus, the Taxi Brains study was born.

Hugo Spiers, lead researcher and professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, told the Washington Post, “We don’t know much about how taxi drivers use their hippocampus during route planning. And how do they use other brain regions to solve the task of navigating 26,000 streets? Can we explain why they might be quick to plan out one route and take a while to think out another one? It’s something we need to know more about.”

PHOTO: PIXABAY/MARK HEMMINGS

To conduct their study, the team will be working with drivers who have the Green Badge, which allows the cabbies to take fares anywhere within the Greater London Authority area. (The Yellow Badge allows drivers to do routes within one of the nine sectors of the suburbs.) The cabbies will be tested on their navigation ability, complete short questionnaires, and have MRI scans to get a good picture of their brains.

Once the data is gathered, the researchers hope to be able to learn which parts of the hippocampus grow in relation to navigation ability. This information may allow for earlier detection of Alzheimer’s, which could mean early treatments and a better quality of life for patients.

Robert Lorden, cabbie and author of “The Knowledge: Train Your Brain Like a London Cabbie,” has already lent his services.

He says, “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.”

PHOTO: PIXABAY/COSTIN HALMAGYI

The research is expected to continue through spring 2022.

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