Taxi Brains Project

 

This is the webpage for our project Taxi Brains, which will help scientists fight dementia with the help of London’s licenced taxi drivers.
London cabbies have remarkable brains. Specifically, their brains' are larger in a region that shrinks early in Alzheimer’s disease -- the hippocampus. Understanding which parts of the hippocampus get bigger in relation to navigation ability will provide critical insights needed to help develop diagnostics for the earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Early diagnosis will help doctors treat patients sooner, limiting the disease and improving quality of life. See below to find out more about the science of the London taxi driver’s brain.

For our Taxi Brain project to succeed we need London cabbies to visit us (The Spatial Cognition Group) at University College London to be tested on their navigation skill and have a brain scan. Alzheimer’s Research UK and Ordnance Survey have joined forces to fund this project and volunteers will be compensated for any parking costs and receive £30 and a picture of their brain for taking part.

Who can take part?
London taxi drivers who hold a Green Badge licence can take part.

Where do I come and how do I volunteer?
We are at: 26 Bedford Way, University College London, WC1H 0AP.

Contact:
Email: spierslab@ucl.ac.uk
Twitter: @taxibrains
Phone: 07763321216 (Mon-Fri, 10.00-16.00)

How long would it take?
It will take 3 hours, which would include breaks and ample tea/coffee and biscuits.

Who is running this project?
The project is run by the research group of Professor Hugo Spiers, which is based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at University College London.

What would I be asked to do?
You would be tested on your ability to plan routes through London and navigate novel environments displayed on an iPad. You will also be asked to complete some short questionnaires.

You will also be invited to have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. Some people will not be able to have an MRI scan. Those are people who have a pace-maker, a metal implant or get claustrophobic easily.
The MRI scan will take a detailed 3D picture of your brain and it will also record brain activity as you plan routes through London.

Endorsement for the project:

“This is such a friendly team. It’s been a joy to help them with this work and feel that I’m able to use my brain to help scientists combat dementia.”

Robert Lorden, London Cabbie, Author of The Knowledge: How to train your brain like a London cabbie

The science of the cabbie brain

Navigation and the ability to plan routes between places is an important skill to have, especially in a complex city like London. Nowadays, it seems very convenient for many people to rely on GPS and automated instructions instead of their own ability to find a route to a destination. However, there is a group of expert navigators in London, the licensed London taxi drivers, who resist these technologies and take pride in their own ability to plan routes between places for their customers. Solely based on what is known as the Knowledge of London and acquired through years of training in specific Knowledge Schools, black cab drivers learn to navigate in a city with a street network that contains about 58.000 streets.

This unique ability to reliably and flexibly adapt to situational factors and plan routes on a daily basis, has a remarkable impact on their brains. In a study, researchers found that -- for taxi drivers -- the part of the brain that is involved in spatial navigation, the so called hippocampus, is larger than for non taxi drivers (Maguire et al., 2000). At the same time, the hippocampus seems to be an area affected for people suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia, which can explain why they become disoriented and have increasing difficulties finding their way as the disease progresses (Tu et al. 2015).