Most people know what it's like to feel disoriented in a new environment, unmoored from familiar surroundings and temporarily unable to find their way back home. But what about people who feel like that all the time?  In 2008, University of Calgary professor Dr. Giuseppe Iaria and his colleagues identified the first individual with DTD (Developmental Topographical Disorientation) a disorder that may effect up to 2% of the population. People with DTD get lost frequently - even in their own neighbourhood. "These are people that get lost every day in the most familiar surroundings", says Iaria, "it's a very frustrating condition."

Interested in finding more people with the condition, Iaria tried a novel approach. He built a website that would help find and identify people with DTD from the rest of the population. "Our website isn't a diagnostic tool, people with DTD already know there's something wrong with their orientation skills," asserts Iaria. The website gives researchers concrete test results to compare people who may have DTD to the rest of the population and the diagnosis comes later during an interview. So far, they've formally identified over 1000 people that suffer from the disorder.

Ann Dodd suffers from DTD. Photo: John Collins

It seems that people with DTD are unable to form mental maps, which is the most critical brain process used to orient oneself in an environment. Researchers know that there's a genetic component but suspect that something might be going wrong with the brain's development at an early age as well. So far there's no treatment.

Over 10,000 people have taken the spatial tests on Iaria's website and the data from individuals without DTD is useful to researchers as well. They now have a much more complete picture of spatial skills in the general population and are able to use the information to compare the effects of  age, race and gender on spatial orientation.

"The website has been an invaluable way to speed up the process of research," says Iaria. Researchers are able to collect more data quickly and from a wide variety of locations. 

Visit the Getting website to learn more about spatial disorders and test your spatial skills.

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