Gay men and women navigate in similar ways, and are worse at it than heterosexual men, according to a new study from researchers at Queen Mary, University of London.

In a study published in the journal Hippocampus, Dr Qazi Rahman, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences used virtual reality scenarios to investigate if spatial learning and memory in humans can be linked to sexual orientation.

Differences in spatial learning and memory (our ability to record and recall information about our environment) are common between men and women. It has been shown that men consistently outperform women on tasks requiring navigation and discovering hidden objects; whereas women are more successful at tests which require them to remember where those objects lie in a particular space.

This is the first study to investigate if those differences are also true for gay, lesbian and straight individuals.

Dr Rahman used virtual reality stimulations of two common tests of spatial learning and memory, designed by researchers at Yale University. In the Morris Water Maze test (MWM), participants found themselves in a virtual pool and had to escape as quickly as possible using spatial clues in the virtual room to find a hidden platform. In the Radial Arm Maze test (RAM), participants had to traverse eight ‘arms’ from a circular junction to find hidden rewards. Four of the arms contained a reward, four did not.

Dr Rahman and his research assistant, Johanna Koerting, found that during the MWM test gay men and straight women took longer to find the hidden platform than did straight men. However, both gay and straight men spent more of their “dwelling time” in the area where the hidden platform actually was, compared to straight and lesbian women.

Dr Rahman explains: “Not only did straight men get started on the MWM test more quickly than gay men and the two female groups, they also maintained that advantage throughout the test. This might mean that sexual orientation affects the speed at which you acquire spatial information, but not necessarily your eventual memory for that spatial information.

“In previous studies we have also found that gay men tend to use similar navigation strategies to women, like using land-marks, and we now want to explore whether navigation strategies on these virtual navigation tasks are also the same for gay men and women. In particular, we are interested in whether heterosexual men are using a unique strategy from their first attempt at traversing a new environment, which accounts for why they are so quick off the mark.”

The researchers also found that gay and straight men were similar in their performance on the Radial Arm Maze. “This suggests that sexual variation in spatial cognition is not straightforward – gay people appear to show a ‘mosaic’ of performance, parts of which are male-like and other parts of which are female-like,” adds Rahman.

Dr Rahman also commented that it would be interesting to see if these sexual differences change with age. “We know that spatial ability declines more rapidly in men with age than in women, and this might be related to changing hormone profiles. This may have some relevance to sex differences in ageing-related diseases of cognitive functioning, such as dementia.

“If we can understand more about how people of different sexes and sexualities differ in spatial performance, we might be able to tailor cognitive remediation therapies more effectively to specific groups within an ageing population.”

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