Why is the posterior hippocampus larger than normal in London taxi drivers? According to Dr. Eleanor Maquire, Ph.D., Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (UCL), the rigorous and grueling preparation that would-be taxi drivers must undergo to achieve what is called “knowledge”, is the reason for these results. These early findings were discovered 20 years ago and bolstered by a second study that followed drivers for four years through the licensing process. The test is a series of oral examinations designed to test candidates’ ability to memorize all of London’s streets, thoroughfares and other thoroughfares, without the aid of maps or electronic devices.
A recent issue of brain and life highlights this research and the implications for Alzheimer’s disease research with respect to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to develop new neural networks. Essentially, memorizing and developing a mental map of their immediate worlds as taxi drivers led to increased brain activity and new neural connections. Since spatial disorientation is common in Alzheimer’s patients and has been linked to a shrinking hippocampus, new research using the latest MRI technologies is trying to pinpoint specific areas of growth in the brain. .
The Taxi Brains projectlead by Hugo Spire, PhD, is the current iteration of this research trajectory to “help scientists tackle dementia with the help of London’s licensed taxi drivers”. As Tom Hutley, a project participant who passed “The Knowledge” test in 2017, explains since his passage, “once I went to a place and arrived there from a different direction, a switch goes off in my brain – the map is filled.”