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Overuse of GPS may deplete brain’s ability to navigate on its own

Know where to go...for now.

Who doesn’t love their GPS? It has saved countless marriages from bitter arguments over which exit to take. Sadly, research indicates, that the relationship-saving GPS may be degrading our brain power.

Findings presented at the 2010 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego last month showed that relying too heavily on the GPS likely inhibits our ongoing brain development.

Montreal’s McGill University researchers reported that excessive GPS use can shrink your hippocampus, part of the brain that helps with spatial navigation. The hippocampus is one of the first brain areas to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, causing problems with memory and spatial orientation.

Veronique Bohbot, neuroscientist and associate professor of psychiatry at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, completed research finding that use of spatial memory may help to reduce the risk of dementia. She noted that people who rely on GPS may have a higher risk of damaging their memory and spatial control, and may have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

This research further supports the “use it or lose it” hypothesis underlying much of the research on age-related mental decline.

Ron Doyle, blogger from Psychology Today, suggests two tips for keeping yourself from becoming a “GPS zombie” and avoiding full-on GPS brain drain:

  1. Mute the voice.  Tune out “Daniel” or “Lee” and use just the visual cues to guide you.
  2. GPS there. Brain home.  To better tune into the directions and use your own sense of direction to get yourself home.

Overall, brain experts aren’t saying “no” to GPS. They do suggest that the ultimate workout to avoid being zombie-fied is exercising the hippocampus with ongoing intellectual enrichment.

“We live in a society that’s so fast paced that it encourages us to feel bad if we get lost,” says Bohbot. “What I say to people is that we can use GPS to explore the environment, but don’t become dependent on it. (Developing) a cognitive map may take longer, but it’s worth the investment.”

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