Navigation requires real-time heading estimation based-on self-movement cues from optic flow and object motion. We presented a simulated heading discrimination task to young, middle-aged and older adult, normal, control subjects and to patients with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. Age-related decline and neurodegenerative disease effects were evident on a battery of neuropsychological and visual motion psychophysical measures. All subject groups made more accurate heading judgements when using optic flow patterns than when using simulated movement past earth-fixed objects. When both optic flow and congruent object were presented together, heading judgements showed intermediate accuracy. In separate trials, we combined optic flow with non-congruent object motion, simulating an independently moving object. In the case of non-congruent objects, almost all of our subjects shifted their perceived self-movement to heading in the direction of the moving object. However, patients with Alzheimer’s disease uniquely indicated that perceived self-movement was straight-ahead, in the direction of visual fixation. The tendency to be confused by objects that appear to move independently in the simulated visual scene corresponded to the difficulty patients with Alzheimer’s disease encountered in real-world navigation through the hospital lobby (R2=0.87). This was not the case in older normal controls (R2=0.09). We conclude that perceptual factors limit safe, autonomous navigation in early Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, the presence of independently moving objects in naturalistic environments limits the capacity of patients with Alzheimer’s disease to judge their heading of self-movement.
Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, visual cognition, cerebral cortex, cognitive neurology