Canada: McGill University researchers recently carried out a series of studies to examine the effects GPS systems on human brain, and have 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 the 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 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, leading 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 standardised 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.