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The First Sign of Alzheimer’s Disease May Not Be What You Think

This study sheds new light on the earliest symptoms

Most people think of memory loss when they think of Alzheimer’s, but a new study suggests that the earliest sign of the disease is trouble with navigation.

Long before a clinical diagnosis is possible, new research finds, Alzheimer’s patients have trouble finding their way around new surroundings.

Study participants were asked to learn and navigate a maze on a computer, using wallpaper patterns and various landmarks as their guides. Those with preclinical Alzheimer’s found it harder to learn the locations of objects in the maze.

“The spatial navigation task used in this study to assess cognitive map skills was more sensitive at detecting preclinical Alzheimer’s disease than the standard psychometric task of episodic memory,” says Denise Head, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in arts & sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the study’s authors. “These findings suggest that navigational tasks designed to assess a cognitive mapping strategy could represent a powerful tool for detecting the very earliest Alzheimer’s disease-related changes in cognition.”

In simpler terms, we’re looking at a new —and better — tool for detecting Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages.

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