Lost: Living Life Without An Internal Compass

Lost in transition
Lost in transition
Anne Debroise

She remembers her panic attacks at age six, whenever she lost sight of her mother at the supermarket. Later, to avoid getting lost on her way to high school, she was constantly accompanied.

Andrea* is now 47-years-old and lives with her father in Vancouver, Canada. To go to work, she follows an itinerary that is always identical. If there is roadwork or a disruption that requires a detour, she is likely to lose her way and will have to call someone to come get her. Andrea doesn't drive. Her social life is very limited.

When there was talk of moving her work place, Andrea decided to see a professional. That's how psychologist Giuseppe Iaria, a specialist of spatial orientation at the University of Calgary, got interested in her case.

Topographical disorientation is a common disorder, but until now it was considered a symptom of brain damage (after a cerebrovascular accident, a trauma, or cerebral degeneration like Alzheimer's disease), or of a mental illness like autism. Yet Andrea has normal motor and intellectual development. She doesn’t have brain damage or any other disorder. But she seems incapable of building a virtual map of her surroundings in her head.

In 2009, Giuseppe Iaria described her case more precisely in the Neuropsychologia scientific journal. "After the article, many people from around the world reached out to us, saying that they had always been suffering from the described symptoms," says the psychologist. He then created a website and perfected a series of online tests to determine if it was the same disorder.

Getting lost, even at home

In 2010, Giuseppe Iaria counted 120 people who had no other problem than getting lost, even in familiar environments. A third of them also declared that at least one other person in their family experienced the same problem, which suggests the presence of a genetic component.

The same year, psychologists at the University of Rome related a second case, even more severe than Andrea's. F.G. was a 22-year-old screenwriting student. He had never been affected by any neurologic or psychiatric illness, and cerebral imagery showed no anomalies, but he had trouble going from his room to the kitchen in his childhood home.

Finally, this year, orientation specialist neurologist Geoffrey Aguirre welcomed a young 18-year-old student with similar symptoms into his University of Pennsylvania laboratory. "He is very smart, he can play music but is completely incapable of finding his way," says the doctor.

"Some people have a specific problem with speech, which is agnosia. Others have trouble reading, which is dyslexia. Others can't recognize faces, which is prosopagnosia. Now we have discovered that some people have a specific problem with orientation. That's developmental topographical disorientation,” explains Aguirre.

No one knows how many people might be affected, or what causes the illness. Giuseppe Iaria's laboratory barely has a trail. When you observe the brain activity of these patients with MRIs as they are asked to form a mental map of their environment, a certain zone, which is normally activated with a healthy subject, stays unsolicited: the hippocampus.

Connections between neurons

The hippocampus plays an important role in spatial representation. In 1978, in animals and in 2003, with humans, biologists identified "location neurons" there. These neurons emit electric shocks when a person is in certain locations of his or her environment. For Geoffrey Aguirre, "it is possible that with disoriented people, the connections between the neurons involved in spatial representation aren't developed enough."

These hypotheses need to be tested, most notably to convince the psychologist, psychiatrist and neurologist communities of the existence of a specific disorder. For Alain Berthoz, a professor at the Collège de France, "there are disorientation symptoms in many pathologies. Orientation brings too many specialized structures and cells into play for there to be a unique disorder."

Radek Ptak, a neurologist and the section head of reeducation at the Beau-Séjour hospital in Geneva, has a more nuanced opinion. "In our department, patients who suffer from disorientation have generally been the victims of cerebrovascular accidents. But we are discovering more and more people with brain development disorders that affect very specific functions. And very clearly, some of them are affected with developmental topographical disorientation."

For now, the disorder isn't in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the international reference on the topic which is currently being revised for a fifth edition. In order to qualify, many studies need to define the disorder more precisely and evaluate the importance of the affected population.

But in laboratories, psychologists are already looking for ideas to help the daily life of their patients. These strategies can use bypassing techniques: for instance, learning the list of landmarks you go by when going from one point to another as a verbal code, or testing video games that teach you how to manipulate maps in three dimensions.

*Not her real name.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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