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SPATIAL NAVIGATION – a unique window into mechanisms of cognitive ageing

Activitiy code: ERC-SG-SH4
Principal Investigator: Prof. Thomas Wolbers
Host Institution:Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen


By 2040, the European population aged over 60 will rise to 290 million, with those estimated to have dementia to 15.9 million. These dramatic demographic changes will pose huge challenges to health care systems, hence a detailed understanding of age-related cognitive and neurobiological changes is essential for helping elderly populations maintain independence. However, while existing research into cognitive ageing has carefully characterised developmental trajectories of functions such as memory and processing speed, one key cognitive ability that is particularly relevant to everyday functioning has received very little attention: In surveys, elderly people often report substantial declines in navigational abilities such as problems with finding one’s way in a novel environment. Such deficits severely restrict the mobility of elderly people and affect physical activity and social participation, but the underlying behavioural and neuronal mechanisms are poorly understood.
In this proposal, I will take a new approach to cognitive ageing that will bridge the gap between animal neurobiology and human cognitive neuroscience. With support from the ERC, I will create a team that will characterise the mechanisms mediating age-related changes in navigational processing in humans. The project will focus on three structures that perform key computations for spatial navigation, form a closely interconnected triadic network, and are particularly sensitive to the ageing process. Crucially, the team will employ an interdisciplinary methodological approach that combines mathematical modelling, brain imaging and innovative data analysis techniques with novel virtual environment technology, which allows for rigorous testing of predictions derived from animal findings. Finally, the proposal also incorporates a translational project aimed at improving spatial mnemonic functioning with a behavioural intervention, which provides a direct test of functional relevance and societal impact

Project details:

Start date: 2014-01-01
End date: 2018-12-31
EU-Contribution: EUR 1 318 990
Total costs: EUR 1 318 990
Funding scheme: ERC Starting Grant 2013