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Why London’s black cabbies are being hailed for brain research

The capital's taxi drivers are renowned for their mind-boggling familiarity with London's labyrinthine street network – and now they're also helping to navigate research into dementia and Alzheimer's disease

The capital's taxi drivers are renowned for their mind-boggling familiarity with London's labyrinthine street network – and now they're also helping to navigate research into dementia and Alzheimer's disease

Licensed black cabbies famously eschew GPS gadgetry, instead relying on ‘the knowledge’ – years spent in training to memorise London’s 58,000 streets – to plot their routes.

Now, the Taxi Brains project, run by University College London’s (UCL’s) Spatial Cognition Group, is probing the remarkable grey matter of up to 30 taxi drivers. Its findings will feed into Alzheimer’s disease diagnostics.

The experiment, which is backed by Alzheimer’s Research UK, builds on studies conducted more than 20 years ago by UCL neuroscientist Professor Eleanor Maguire. Aware that squirrels and some birds have a large hippocampus (the area of the brain that takes care of spatial navigation), Prof Maguire scanned the brains of London cabbies, and discovered they share the same characteristic.

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“Their hippocampus appears to get bigger the more years they put into the job,” said research lead, Professor Hugo Spiers, from UCL’s department of experimental psychology.

“That’s really interesting for dementia research, because it’s precisely the part of the brain that declines in size with Alzheimer’s disease.”

 

Using your brain rather than Google Maps might actually help – in the same way that physical fitness is important

“Maybe there’s something very protective about working out your spatial knowledge on a daily basis, like these guys do,” Prof Spiers said. “It may not necessarily be spatial, but just using your brain rather than Google Maps might actually help – in the same way that physical fitness is important.”

Two decades on, Prof Spiers hopes that improved MRI technology will be able to pinpoint changes in individual areas of drivers’ hippocampi. “It’s a chance to revisit an old finding,” he told Positive News. “I thought it was about time we got on with it and did it again.”

During the research, cabbies’ navigational skills are tested over two hours while they undergo MRI scans, which have been funded by Ordnance Survey.

Robert Lordan, taxi driver and author of The Knowledge: How to Train your Brain like a London Cabbie, said: “It’s been a joy to help [the research team] with this work and feel that I’m able to use my brain to help scientists combat dementia.”

The project is still seeking London cab drivers for test appointments in October. See @taxibrains on Twitter

Main image: Fat Macy’s/Benoit Grogan-Avignon

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