Posts Tagged ‘offsetting age-related cognitive impairments’

Reasons to Build a Healthy Hippocampus

June 8, 2019

This post is inspired by an article by M.R. O’Connor in the 6 June 2019 issue of the Washington Post titled, “Here’s what gets lost when we rely on GPS.” The article cites a study published in Nature Communications in 2017 where researchers asked participants to navigate a virtual simulation of London’s Soho neighborhood and monitored their brain activity, specifically the hippocampus, which, as health memory blog readers know, is integral to spatial navigation. Amir-Honayoun Javadi, one of the study’s authors said, “The hippocampus makes an internal map of the environment and this map becomes active when you are engaged in navigating and not using GPS.”

The hippocampus is highly important. It allows us to orient in space and know where we are by creating cognitive maps. It allows us to both store and retrieve personal memories of experience. Neuroscientists believe the hippocampus believes give us the ability to imagine the future. Again this is something healthy memory blog readers should know and one of the principle purposes of memory is for time travel so we can travel back in time to review our past, so we can think of possible actions we can take in the future.

Research has long shown that the hippocampus changes as a function of learning. Again healthy memory blog readers should remember the study of London taxi drivers who have greater gray-matter volume in the hippocampus due to memorizing the city’s labyrinthine streets. Atrophy in the hippocampus is linked to devastating conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. Stress and depression dampen neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons —in the hippocampal circuit.

Javadi said the conclusions he draws from recent research is that “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink”

Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot has found that using spatial-memory strategies for navigation correlates with increased gray matter in the hippocampus at any age. She thinks that interventions focused on improving spatial memory by exercising the hippocampus—paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment—might help offset age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases.

She continues, “If we are paying attention to our environments, we re stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease. When we get lost , it activates the hippocampus, it gets us completely out of the habit mode. Getting lost is good.” It can be a good thing if done safely.

M.R. O’Connor writes, “Saturated with devices, children today might grow up to see navigation from memory or a paper map as anachronistic as rote memorization or typewriting. But for them especially, independent navigation and the freedom to explore are vital to acquiring spatial knowledge that may improve hippocampal function. Turning off the GPS and teaching them navigational skills could have enormous cognitive benefits later in life.”

M.R. O’Connor concludes the article, “Over the past four years, I’ve spoken with master navigators from different cultures who show me that performing navigation is a powerful form of engagement with the environment that can inspire a greater sense of stewardship. Finding our way on our own—using perception, empirical observation and problem solving skills—forces us to attune ourselves to the outside world. And by turning our attention to the physical landscape that sustains and connects us, we can nourish “topophilia,” a sense of attachment and love for space. You’ll never get that from waiting for a satellite to tell you how to find a shortcut.”