Could the secret to dementia be found in London’s black taxi drivers? Scientists hope study of black taxi drivers’ memory for maps will make it easier to detect Alzheimer’s

  • In a brand new study, MRI scans were taken on the brains of London Black Cab drivers. 
  • Research shows that brains of taxi driver drivers may be larger than the general population.
  • Scientists believe the study “Taxi Brains” will lead to dementia diagnostics

Researchers hope to uncover the secrets of Alzheimer’s disease by exploring the brains of London’s black taxi drivers.

MR scans have been taken of the brains of drivers, with a focus on the hippocampus – a key area that plays a role in memory. It shrinks when people are suffering from Alzheimer’s. 

The hippocampus has been found to be larger among London taxi drivers than it is in the general population, according to previous studies. The hippocampus also continues growing as the driver’s career progresses.

'London cabbies have unique brains. They have a difference in the size of their hippocampus,' says neuroscientist Professor Hugo Spiers

“London Cabbies are unique in their brains.” Professor Hugo Spiers, a neuroscientist says they have different hippocampus sizes.

Hugo Spiers is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College and is conducting the Taxi Brains study. He hopes to create diagnostics that can detect dementia sooner. Results will be made available for charity Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Prof Spiers claimed that London taxi drivers have uniquely developed brains. Their hippocampuses are different sizes. It’s a small increase but highly significant. 

‘You can’t study these people in New York. It is impossible to find a city anywhere else that can offer this level of similarity.

Professor Spiers says that problems in coordination and coherence are some of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s. 

He stated, “One of the most important things that occurs in the initial stages is that people become confused.

‘When they step out of the house they don’t know where they really are or which way they need to go. They’re lost.

‘What we’re hoping to understand better is the potential impact of certain lifestyles, in this case navigating every day for most of your adult life using your own memory and not Google, and what is that doing to the brain.’ 

London cab drivers are required to pass the grueling Knowledge of London test since 1865. It involves remembering 100,000 landmarks, 26,000 streets, and finding the fastest route to the complex city roads. 

The Knowledge can take three to four year to complete. It is considered as hard as getting a law diploma and as demanding as the most challenging memory test in the world.

Prof Spiers identified cabbies in London and asked them to join the study. They also did MRI scans of themselves as they attempted to answer questions on The Knowledge. 

Mike Lewis (64), a father of four from Chingford in Essex who is a former black taxi driver. He has worked as a driver for over 38 years. The study was suggested to him by Twitter.

Developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is many Britons’ worst fear when it comes to ageing, according to a recent survey by YouGov

Developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is many Britons’ worst fear when it comes to ageing, according to a recent survey by YouGov

When asked about The Knowledge, he replied: “It is like becoming obsessed.” It’s not difficult to do until your words are perfect, and then everything becomes automatic. 

Eleanor Maguire an Irish neuroscientist first recognized that The Knowledge was having positive effects on drivers’ brains back in 2000. In 2011, a second study found that drivers who were qualified had a higher hippocampus. 

Professor Spiers studied in Maguire’s laboratory. He said, “The key to the puzzle is that 21 years back it was found that taxi drivers seem to have a larger part.

‘The longer they had been taxi drivers, the larger that one part appeared to be, as if it was expanding with experience — but that’s an assumption.’ 

All black taxi drivers that are interested can follow @taxibrains via Twitter