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Excessive use of GPS units could lead to Alzheimer's disease

McGill University researchers conducted a series of three studies which magnify the effects GPS systems have on the human brain, and found that avid GPS users have a higher risk of suffering from problems with memory and spatial orientation. 

Veronique Bohbot, associate professor of psychiatry at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University, along with a team of McGill researchers, found that those who use a GPS system to navigate often have a higher chance of damaging a region of the brain that controls memory. 

Humans generally navigate using one of two methods. The first is a spatial navigation strategy where landmarks are used to build cognitive maps that help us figure out where we are without the use of a GPS. The second is a stimulus-response strategy where we drive in auto-pilot mode, making turns in certain places because repetition tells us that this is the best way to reach a specific destination. This second strategy is more closely related to the way GPS users navigate.

"When it comes to finding my way, I've become a GPS zombie," said Jean Snyder, a 47-year-old office manager in Highland Heights, Ohio. "I'm sure I'm not doing my brain any favors."

When functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, was performed on those who navigate both spatially and through stimulus-response strategies, people who used a spacial navigation strategy had increased activity in an area of the brain involved with memory and navigation known as the hippocampus. 

McGill researchers found that excessive use of a GPS unit may lead to atrophy of the hippocampus as we age, which puts the person at risk for cognitive problems such as Alzheimer's disease later in life. Alzheimer's disease affects the hippocampus first before any other part of the brain, which leads to problems with spatial orientation and memory. 

In addition, researchers found a "greater volume of grey matter" within the hippocampus of spatial strategy-using adults. On a standardized cognition test, which helps diagnose cognitive impairment, these adults scored higher than those who don't use spatial strategies. According to the study, these results suggest that spatial memory increases hippocampus activity, which then results in an increased quality of life. 

While researchers have found evidence relating hippocampus activity to memory, there are still questions surrounding this research. For instance, researchers are unsure as to whether using spacial strategies causes the hippocampus to grow, or if having a "robust" hippocampus causes an individual to use spacial strategies. 

Either way, using spatial strategies instead of the GPS would be helpful in lessening the deterioration of memory. The study isn't encouraging everyone to throw their GPS units away, but to take a break now and then. 

"We live in a society that's so fast paced that it encourages us to feel bad if we get lost," said Bohbot. "What I say to people is that we can use GPS to explore the environment, but don't become dependent on it. Developing a cognitive map may take longer, but it's worth the investment." 

These studies were presented at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting on November 14. 

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Logic flaw
By redbone75 on 11/16/2010 12:36:27 PM , Rating: 3
This study seems to assume that the only time the subjects use spatial cognition is when travelling. There very well could have been more reasons there was decreased activity in that area of the brain amongst some of the subjects. Luckily, I actually read the article and found this:
For example, research at the University of London showed that part of the hippocampus of London taxi cab drivers is actually larger than that of a non-taxi driver control group. Despite the most experienced drivers having the most robust hippocampus, it's still not known whether finding those novel routes through London's Byzantine maze of streets caused the hippocampus to grow, or if having a robust hippocampus helps a person become a successful cab driver, explains Epstein.

I wouldn't exactly say the study was useless, but far more research needs to go into the subject matter before findings are released.

RE: Logic flaw
By ketchup79 on 11/16/2010 1:08:36 PM , Rating: 2
I would just like to voice my opinion about how stupid and useless this study is.
1. GPS units have not been out long enough to track such long-term effects in individuals.
2. Did people develop Alzheimer's all the time before cars were invented because they were not able to develop that part of their hippocampus?
3. Are these people using GPS units when walking around the house/office/etc?

RE: Logic flaw
By tng on 11/16/2010 1:58:46 PM , Rating: 2
2. Did people develop Alzheimer's all the time before cars were invented because they were not able to develop that part of their hippocampus?
Well it is thought by some scientists out there that many reported cases of Alzheimer's is actually mad cow disease in human form. Of course no one but a small group of people are checking into this and it never makes headline news for obvious reasons....

RE: Logic flaw
By JediJeb on 11/16/2010 2:38:15 PM , Rating: 2
3. Are these people using GPS units when walking around the house/office/etc?

Probably they are. Honestly I work with someone who turns their GPS unit on even when we are just driving two miles down the road to lunch, every day. That's fine when you first buy it and are curious about how it works, but over a year later I would think the new would have worn off.

I could see one being useful if driving to a city I have never been to before, but that would be the only time I would turn one on if I had one. I guess growing up tracking miles through the woods hunting and exploring with out even taking a map along makes me jaded on the subject a little, but I have never seemed to need more than a map and a little dead reckoning to get where I am going.

RE: Logic flaw
By UNHchabo on 11/16/2010 2:54:43 PM , Rating: 2
Or you can be like me, and get a very outdated GPS unit, so it will occasionally direct you towards the wrong location, and you have to be smart enough to recognize when that happens. ;)

RE: Logic flaw
By peldor on 11/16/2010 3:17:44 PM , Rating: 2
I just use Google Maps. Same effect.

RE: Logic flaw
By kingius on 11/17/2010 10:47:56 AM , Rating: 2
We may be heading for a future where those who over rely on technology discover they are significantly more stupid than those who do not.

RE: Logic flaw
By ranran on 11/18/2010 9:35:31 AM , Rating: 2

Good one and if I knew how to rate, I'd do it.. :)

RE: Logic flaw
By geddarkstorm on 11/17/2010 5:34:48 PM , Rating: 2
What? You -don't- want to jetski across the Pacific?

RE: Logic flaw
By FITCamaro on 11/16/2010 3:06:19 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah they're great to have if visiting somewhere you've never been. But if you're using one to just to somewhere you've been more than once, there's a problem.

RE: Logic flaw
By marvdmartian on 11/17/2010 11:54:43 AM , Rating: 1
And yet, I'm guessing that the "research" used in this study had people doing exactly that.

Certainly, if you're not using memories you have, to guide you to a place you know how to go to, and instead rely solely on a GPS unit, it could have an eventual effect on the ability to make/use that type of memory.

But honestly, how many people are we talking about, that would do such a thing?

RE: Logic flaw
By Natch on 11/17/2010 8:00:07 PM , Rating: 2
Must be some haters on the board, knocking down perfectly logical statements with no reason?

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