Hippocampus-dependent spatial learning is associated with higher global cognition among healthy older adults
Cognitive deficits in normal aging have been associated with atrophy of the hippocampus. As such, methods to detect early dysfunction of the hippocampus have become valuable, if not indispensable, to early intervention. The hippocampus is critical for spatial memory and is among the first structures to atrophy with aging. Despite the presence of navigation deficits in aging, few studies have looked at the association between wayfinding ability, navigation strategies, general cognitive function, and hippocampal volume. In the current study we investigated whether better general cognitive function is associated with the use of hippocampal-dependent spatial strategies, better spatial memory, and increased hippocampal volume. We also investigated, within older adults, the effects of aging on spatial memory. Healthy older adults (N = 107) were tested on a virtual wayfinding task and a dual-solution navigation task that can be solved using either a hippocampal-dependent spatial strategy or a caudate nucleus-dependent response strategy. Participants were also administered the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), a test that measures general cognition and is sensitive to dementia. A structural MRI was administered to a sub-set of participants (n = 49) and hippocampal volume was calculated using a Multiple Automatically Generated Templates (MAGeT) Brain algorithm. We found that age was negatively associated with wayfinding ability and hippocampal volume. On the wayfinding task, participants with higher MoCA scores found more target locations and travelled shorter distances. We also found a significant association between higher MoCA scores and spatial strategy use. MoCA scores, spatial memory ability, and spatial strategy use all positively correlated with a larger hippocampal volume. These results confirm that with age there is a decrease in spatial memory, which is consistent with decreased volume in the hippocampus with aging. Furthermore, better general cognitive function is associated with better wayfinding ability and increased use of hippocampal-dependent spatial strategies.