U of C researchers help the lost find their way

By Emily Macphail

Imagine getting lost in your own neighbourhood or home — not one you have just moved to, but one that you have lived in for 20 years. For people with developmental topographical disorientation, this event can be a daily occurrence. First described in 2009 by assistant psychology professor at the University of Calgary Giuseppe Iaria and colleagues, dtd is a condition where people experience difficulties with orientation.

Although similar difficulties can be seen in individuals with brain damage, dtd is unique in that individuals with the disorder have no structural lesions or other cognitive impairments.

Iaria’s project, Helping Children Stay Oriented Through Life, is looking to find new ways to help people with the disorder.

The disorder has been classified as developmental because orientation skills are developed in childhood, and those with dtd report consistent orientation difficulties from a young age.

“The most important skill that we have for orientating in the environment is forming and making use of a cognitive map,” said Iaria. Cognitive maps are developed over time and act as mental representations of the environment, giving someone dynamic navigation and orientation skills.

The most challenging task for people with dtd is forming a mental map, said Iaria.

Tests to confirm dtd include both online and lab testing in which individuals are asked to react to and use different orientation strategies. Brain imaging and genetic testing are also used to identify the disorder. Although it is a relatively new classification, it is gaining recognition in the scientific community. Other researchers are also beginning to publish on the topic.

Iaria’s team — including graduate students Aiden Arnold and Clayton Ford Burles — is currently hoping to develop a video game that will allow both assessment and treatment for those affected by dtd.

According to Iaria, by intervening early, the disorder will have less of an impact on quality of life. Orientation skills will also be easier to integrate because developing brains have a greater capacity for forming new connections and pathways.

Although the video game is directed towards children, treatment is similar for adults and children. According to Iaria, adult training is more task-oriented.

The team is also researching in partnership with the University of Osnabruck in Germany. The research requires participants to wear a belt with a directional sensor.

Despite the growing recognition of the disorder, funding for dtd is still difficult to obtain. Iaria said this is due to how new the research is.

“People don’t like to sponsor new things,” said Iaria. Because of these financial hurdles, development of possible treatment tools for dtd has been slow.

The SciFund Challenge, founded by Jai Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes, biologists at the University of California, is an initiative to use a new form of funding called crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding was first used by artists to fund their creative endeavours through websites like Kickstarter. Now the phenomenon is branching into science.

The principle of crowdfunding is that anyone can donate to a project they support. It is both a way to raise funds and connect with the public.

Through taking part in the the SciFund Challenge, the team hopes they will receive the funding they need for their research.

Helping Children Stay Oriented Through Life was the only Albertan, and one of only five Canadian projects, to be funded through the challenge’s second session. The project’s goal was to raise $5,000 — with $3,425, they are well on their way.

The challenge closes on May 31, but Iaria’s team will continue to collect donations through their website.

Iaria said crowdfunding’s popularity will continue to increase.

“It’s not in our culture yet, [but] it will become more popular because it will be the people deciding which kind of research needs to go on rather than the government and the agencies,” said Iaria. “I think a small donation in a large population makes a huge difference.”

Although he said government funding and philanthropy are important, public funding makes a huge difference.

“It’s important to give voice to people who can only give five or 10 dollars,” said Iaria.

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