A symposium on the brain's compass
The sense of direction is one of the most important human abilities. From 27 to 29 November 2018, about 70 experts from Europe, Canada and the US will discuss in Magdeburg how this navigation system operates and how it alters in old age or due to dementia. The conference is organized by the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE).
“Worldwide, this unique interdisciplinary conference is the only one focusing on spatial navigation across the lifespan. The inaugural meeting two years ago was a great success, and we have once more attracted high-profile speakers from Europe and North America,” says Prof. Thomas Wolbers, a senior scientist at the DZNE and one of the organizers of the symposium. “Recent findings will be presented in Magdeburg, and we will discuss strategies to maintain the ability for spatial orientation in old age for as long as possible.”
A compass in the head
Spatial orientation seems simple and is often taken for granted, as usually it happens completely unconsciously. But it is in fact a cognitive feat for which the brain has to process a flood of information. Special neurons like place or grid cells – whose discovery led to the Nobel prize in 2014 – are crucial for this, as they form a navigation system that helps to locate our position and to guide us through space. “However, navigational abilities can substantially decline in old age. Elderly people often find it difficult to find their way around in new environments. They tend to get lost, which can have adverse effects on their mobility, their autonomy and thus on their general quality of life”, says Wolbers.
In addition, dementia can also impair spatial cognition. “Difficulties in spatial orientation are regarded as a possible early sign of Alzheimer’s”, says Wolbers. “Therefore, one of the aims of current research is to be able to distinguish age-related orientation problems from disease-related disorders. On this basis, novel tools for the early diagnosis of dementia could possibly be developed.”
A broad range of topics
As the interplay of different research approaches is a key to scientific progress, the conference will cover a broad variety of topics. The spectrum ranges from brain studies using imaging techniques to research into spatial orientation based upon online-gaming or virtual reality.
Prof. Carol Barnes (University of Arizona, USA) is one of the speakers. She gained international recognition for her research on age-related brain changes and their effects on spatial memory. The meeting’s participants also include Prof. Michael Hornberger (University of East Anglia, UK). Hornberger is one of the developers of “Sea Hero Quest”, a game for smartphones and tablets that can be used to test orientation skills. Several million people worldwide have already taken part in this game. Prof. Scott Moffat (Georgia Institute of Technology, USA) will talk about studies that rely upon virtual reality. Prof. Sylvain Williams (McGill University, Canada) will explain how memories are consolidated through sleep, and Prof. Pierre Lavenex (Universite de Lausanne, Switzerland) will be talking about memory in old age.
The conference is organized by Prof. Thomas Wolbers and members of his research group “Aging and Cognition” as well as by Dr. Motoharu Yoshida, head of the “Cognitive Neurophysiology” lab at the DZNE in Magdeburg.
Dr. Marcus Neitzert