Taxi brains – how London’s black cab drivers and their mapping knowledge is helping Alzheimer’s research

How the study of London taxi drivers’ brains could undercover clues to help understand Alzheimer’s disease

2 minute read
Ordnance Survey (OS) is a proud partner of a UCL led research team that has been studying London taxi drivers’ brains and whether they can undercover clues to help understand Alzheimer’s disease.

Funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK and OS, the study has been recruiting London cabbies due to their incredible capacity to piece together the capital’s 26,000 streets. The study is focusing on a specific part of the brain, the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and spatial awareness and is often one of the first areas damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead researcher Professor Hugo Spiers (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) hopes the results from this study will help develop diagnostics to improve early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Professor Spiers said: “We know from previous research that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers’ brains are larger than average, and that this is also an area that shrinks in people with Alzheimer’s disease. We hope that taxi drivers will help us learn more about how the hippocampus enables us to navigate, which could provide new insights into how this part of the brain is involved in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.”

Jeremy Morley, OS Chief Geospatial Scientist, added: “It is great to be supporting a project which will hopefully unlock valuable insight in Alzheimer’s disease. We’re also interested in how the cab drivers’ brains support the essential skill of quickly deciding how to get between any two landmarks in London. The aim is to mimic how the brain has evolved to do this to improve the results from satnav systems, especially in finding alternative routes for a trip.”

He continued: “at OS we are also interested in how maps of the future are presented, accessed and used. Whether that's for gaming engines, leisure, transport or machine to machine access via APIs, it’s about not deciding the purpose before we publish. It’s a great new horizon.”

What's special in a taxi driver's brain?

Listen to this audio podcast to learn more about our unique dementia work with scientists from University College London.

Mapping and navigation supporting Alzheimer’s research

For more information watch London Black Cab driver John and Research Scientists Christoffer Gahnstrom PhD and Sarah Goodroe PhD discuss this ground-breaking scientific experiment:

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