Mental GPS? There’s an App For That

Two student researchers team with their professor to create a program that could help diagnose cognitive impairment.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Abigail Meisel

As we travel about an environment like a city, we instinctively learn how to get from one location to another and form a “mental map” of our surroundings. How do we do it? And why are some people great navigators while others are frequently disoriented?

“Having to remember where things are in the world is an intriguing problem that most of us face on a daily basis. The ability to do this is called 'spatial memory',” says Joshua Julian, GR’22, a doctoral candidate in psychology. “Scientists understand a great deal about the locus of spatial memory in the brain, which includes the hippocampus. But we don’t know exactly how it works. This is an important problem because spatial memory is one of the first areas affected by diseases that impair cognition, like Alzheimer’s, or certain brain injuries.”

Julian conducts research in directional ability in both human and non-human subjects alongside Professor of Psychology Russell Epstein, an expert in the cognitive and neural basis of spatial navigation.

With the help of undergraduate research assistant Peter Bryan, C’16, a recent Penn graduate, Julian and Epstein have launched a global project to test the spatial abilities of people around the world and “amass a huge amount of data” from a real-life situation.

Psychologists can rate someone’s spatial “intelligence” in an assessment called “judgment of relative direction” (JRD).  Last winter, Epstein, Julian and Bryan developed an iPhone application called iJRD, which is downloadable from the iPhone App Store and will allow people across the world to virtually navigate their way through their home city and test their sense of direction as they go.

“We wanted to take our research out of the lab and into the real world,” says Bryan.

Users enter their location and then choose from a list of familiar landmarks, for example, Philadelphia users might choose the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall. They then imagine standing in front of one landmark while virtually indicating the direction to other locations. In the process, they learn about their spatial abilities and can even compare their results to those of other people using the same app. The Penn team will then download the results for their research study.

According to Julian, discoveries made from iJRD may have important implications for basic research in psychology, neuroscience, and urban planning. Knowledge obtained from iJRD will also be critical for guiding research into spatial memory deficits caused by brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. An improved understanding of spatial memory can help advance early detection methods and target therapeutic approaches.

“A diminishment in directional ability can be a red flag,” says Julian. “Ideally our research will one day be applied in a clinical setting to catch Alzheimer’s at its inception.”

The app is now in available for use in Philadelphia, and this summer the Penn team will launch it nationally and then expand internationally to English speaking cities, including London, Toronto and Montreal. In total, the app will include a total of 50 landmarks in 20 different cities. The Penn team has begun by promoting the app among people in their field, and hopes to reach a larger general population using Facebook and other social media to spread the word.

“This project is exciting because we are able to collect data from hundreds or even thousands of people. And it's not just information about a toy environment we made up in the lab—it's about the complex, real-world cities that they actually live in,” says Epstein.