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New findings about brain's 'compass' offer clues about Alzheimer's

A tiny section of the brain that is ravaged by Alzheimers disease is more important for our ability to orient ourselves than scientists have long thought, helping to explain why people with the disease become lost so easily. The findings by neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center are reported in the March 29 issue of Science.

Neurologist Charles Duffy, M.D., Ph.D., previously discovered that a small section of brain tissue slightly above and behind the ear known as the medial superior temporal area (MST) acts much like a compass, instantly updating your mental image of your bodys movements through space. In new research, Duffy and graduate student Michael Froehler show that the MST acts not only as a compass but also as a sort of biological global positioning system, providing a mental map to help us understand exactly where we are in the world and how we got there.

The findings help explain why people with Alzheimers disease have such a difficult time finding their way in the world, Duffy says. Doctors already know that brain cells in the MST die in great numbers in patients with the disease, and four years ago Duffy described a condition known as motion blindness that explains why Alzheimers patients lose the ability to keep track of their own movements.

Now, through research funded by the National Eye Institute, the National Institute on Aging, and the Alzheimers Association, he and Froehler have found that the same region is even more crucial than previously thought for keeping us oriented.

We believe this discovery will help us develop new ways to treat people with Alzheimers disease who lose the ability to understand where they are or where theyre going, says Duffy. For these patients its truly a tragedy when the disease reaches a point where they cant find their way through their town, their neighborhood, or even their own home; often this is the first step toward a huge loss of independence. Underst
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Contact: Tom Rickey
trickey@admin.rochester.edu
585-275-7954
University of Rochester Medical Center
28-Mar-2002


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