Taxi Brains Project by Prof Hugo Spiers at University College London

28 January 2022

Prof Hugo Spiers from University College London is conducting a research study to look at London taxi drivers’ brains and whether they could uncover clues to help scientists understand Alzheimer’s disease. This is an ongoing study that has been funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK and Ordnance Survey.

What will they do?

The study is recruiting London taxi drivers and looking at a specific part of the brain – the hippocampus – that is involved in memory. It is often one of the first areas damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.

Participants who can, will have an MRI scan to look at the structure of the hippocampus.

All taxi drivers in the study will do a navigation task to test their ability to plan routes through London. They will also be asked to do some questionnaires after this.

What are they hoping to find?

Previous studies have shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to non-taxi drivers. This is interesting as this brain region shrinks and becomes damaged in Alzheimer’s disease, leading to symptoms of memory loss and confusion associated with the disease.

Prof Spiers hopes the results from this study will help develop diagnostics to help improve early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Our expert comment:

Dr Laura PhippsDr Laura Phipps, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Almost one million people in the UK are currently affected by dementia and there is an urgent need to better understand the changes in the brain causing these diseases. We know that the hippocampus is key to memory and thinking, and that this shrinks in people living with the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.

“This exciting study from Prof Hugo Spires is building upon existing findings showing that the hippocampus is larger in London taxi drivers compared to non-taxi drivers. Volunteers will have MRI scans to look at the structure of their hippocampus, and this will be compared to results from their questionnaire and navigation tests.

“Problems with coordination and getting lost can be one of the first symptoms in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Studying London taxi drivers provides a unique opportunity to understand these early changes, with the hope of improving early detection and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in future. Diseases like Alzheimer’s can start in the brain up to two decades before symptoms show, so understanding how to identify those at risk early could help researchers to deliver life-changing preventions and treatments in the years ahead.”