It may seem like a stretch, but there is an association between using a GPS and Alzheimer’s brain function. A recent study has shown decreased neural activity in the hippocampal region of the brain when using the electronic navigation system. The hippocampus is one of the main areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Is There a Cause and Effect?

Using any type of electronic device cannot be called cause for developing Alzheimer’s. However, research has shown that cognitive exercise can help slow the shrinkage of the hippocampus. Mental exercise, the type used naturally to navigate a system from memory or maps would be considered a form of cognitive stimulation.

Smartphones On—Brain Turns Off

A study out of the University College London focused on brain scans of the participants’ hippocampus. Twenty-four volunteers were asked to navigate a simulated version of the Soho District in central London. What they discovered was fascinating.
When the participants used the GPS, portions of their brains literally turned off. The brain region used for memory and navigation was not stimulated in the least. However, when they navigated without assistance, the scans showed spikes in neural activity in both the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex.
The lead researcher and psychologist Hugo Spiers remarked, “Our results fit with models in which the hippocampus simulates journeys on future possible paths while the prefrontal cortex helps us to plan which ones will get us to our destination.”
The navigation activity challenged parts of the brain for memory and navigation (hippocampus), as well as planning and decision-making (prefrontal cortex.)
A previous study showed similar results—that as humans interact with their surroundings, the brain is stimulated to form a “back-up plan.” When the brain is navigating, it relies on memory and then decision making. With a GPS, our brain doesn’t have to do the work.

Isn’t Less Challenge to the Brain Better?

It might feel easier, but it’s not to the benefit of our brain health to let it sit inactive. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to grow and thrive. Decreased plasticity of the hippocampus happens naturally over time. It actually shrinks. But, continued research is showing that exercise and cognitive stimulation slows the shrinking process. In fact, working the mind has, in many cases, shown to reverse hippocampal atrophy.

Alzheimer’s and the Brain

One of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is comprised of two seahorse-shaped portions that lie on each side of the brain. It is responsible for helping us form new memories (short-term memories), as well as the gateway for allowing those to get stored in our long-term memory. So, it’s also a part of the brain that helps us retrieve those older memories.
With Alzheimer’s, brain scans will show a shrunken hippocampus. (Other forms of dementia affect the hippocampus as well.) This is why the impairment of memory is often the first notable symptom of the disease. In connecting the GPS navigation study to the challenges of Alzheimer’s, it’s clearer to see why certain patients also experience disorientation with their surroundings.
There is ample research to support that mental exercise boosts brain activity and health. Also, peruse GetThrive for related topic on mental health.