Aug. 31, 2018

Lost? UCalgary Neurolab offers to help students experiencing a lifelong inability to orient

As classes resume, researchers ready to assist the 2% of the population affected by developmental topographical disorientation
Anyone wanting to find the quickest way to their class can look for volunteers wearing bright red buttons that say “Ask Me.”

Anyone wanting to find their way to their class can look for volunteers wearing red "Ask Me" buttons

Student and Enrolment Services, University of Calgary

As the school year gets underway, millions of dazed and confused new students will be criss-crossing the campuses of colleges and universities, looking for their lockers, their classrooms, the bus stop, a place to get a cup of coffee or just a quiet study space.

For most of them, that feeling of being a little lost will disappear in a matter of days as they become more familiar with their new surroundings.

But for one or two students out of every hundred, their new campus environment will never become a place they know well.

“Every year I receive emails from new undergraduate students around the world telling me about their difficulty in orienting and navigating,” explains Dr. Giuseppe Iaria, “and it’s a great source of frustration for them, as they look for classrooms and services.”

Iaria, who holds a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, says these people are dealing with what is known as developmental topographical disorientation (DTD), a condition present from childhood despite otherwise well-developed general mental functions and the absence of any brain injury or neurological disorder.

“People with DTD know they have it, and for us, it is easy to tell,” says Iaria. “They get lost in extremely familiar environments. For instance, they might be disoriented in the neighbourhood where they have lived their entire lives, and places like that, where people with difficulties — but not DTD — will not get lost.”

Although people with DTD may never be able to locate what they’re looking for with ease, Iaria and his team in UCalgary’s NeuroLab believe they can help. Neurolab is located in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts.  It investigates human ability to orient and navigate in spatial surroundings.

Beginning next week, all members of NeuroLab at UCalgary are offering their help to all students who may experience the lifelong inability to orient. If you think you are one of those students please send an enquiry to

“Students requiring help will be provided with training sessions that will help them to navigate through campus and learn the locations of classrooms and services,” says Iaria, who also holds an adjunct position in the Cumming School of Medicine.

Anyone wishing to find the quickest way to their class that’s about to start, look for the volunteers across campus. You can’t miss them as they’ll be wearing bright red buttons on their shirts that say “Ask Me” on them. You can also get directions from volunteers at the Ask Me tent on TFDL quad and next to the Science B building throughout the week, as well as at offices displaying Ask Me posters. For more information about the kinds of questions that Ask Me program volunteers can help you with, please visit the web page.