Cabbies' 'Remarkable Brains' Help Alzheimer's Research

London drivers map routes during MRI scans
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 10, 2021 5:05 PM CST
Cabbies' 'Remarkable Brains' Help Alzheimer's Research
Cab drivers line up in London.   (Getty/Jupiterimages)

The brains of London cabdrivers aren't like other people's. Before they're hired, prospective drivers study the city's streets for years and memorize thousands of routes, the Washington Post reports. And it's not just a matter of remembering information long enough to pass the tests; human GPS systems that they are, the drivers have to recall and use the data every day. "London cabbies have remarkable brains," said Hugo Spiers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Maybe learning about those brains that have acquired what's called the Knowledge would enable learning about brains dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, Spiers figured.

So 30 cabdrivers are undergoing MRI scans at University College London while they map out 120 routes from a London landmark to a destination in their heads. Their brains also are scanned while they play a video game, "Sea Hero Quest," to assess their spatial navigation capability. The drivers are perfect for the study, a researcher said. "There is no other professional group quite like them, especially in the field of spatial navigation," said Chris Gahnstrom. The goal is to contribute to the development of diagnostics that could spot dementia sooner in patients, allowing for earlier treatment.

Researchers already knew that studying the Knowledge enlarges the hippocampus, a part of the brain that controls learning and memory, per Euronews. A study last year found that the hippocampus keeps growing as the London cabbies work, while that region can shrink in people with Alzheimer's disease. The drivers have a larger hippocampus than the population in general, as well. "You can't study these people in New York," Spiers said, per the Mirror. Cabbies involved in the project said they were glad to find another use for the Knowledge. Something else sets them apart, Gahnstrom said: "They were by far the nicest and most forthcoming group I've had the pleasure to run experiments with." (Read more Alzheimer's disease stories.)

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