A specially designed mobile phone game can identify people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research that has been hailed a major step forward in the early detection of dementia.
The Sea Hero Quest game, which involves steering a boat around the ocean, was specially designed to help researchers get a better understanding of dementia by seeing how the brain works when it comes to spatial navigation.
“We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse”
It has been downloaded and played by more than 4.3 million people worldwide, generating huge amounts of data that can be used to inform ground-breaking research.
Study findings published in the journal PNAS suggest looking at how people play the game can help identify those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s.
Researchers said this was particularly significant because standard thinking and memory tests – which do help spot symptoms further down the line – could not distinguish those at risk at this much earlier stage.
The game was created by telecommunications firm Deutsche Telekom in partnership with charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, University College London, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and game developers Glitchers.
As players make their way through mazes of islands and icebergs, the research team is able to translate that into a wealth of scientific data, with every two minute spent playing the game equivalent to five hours of lab-based research.
This abundance of information can then be used to study how people who are genetically pre-disposed to Alzheimer’s disease play the game compared with people who are not.
“It means that we can detect people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s”
Current diagnosis of dementia is strongly based on memory symptoms, which occur when the disease is quite advanced, noted lead researcher Professor Michael Hornberger, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.
However, the study suggests the game can detect “subtle spatial navigation and awareness deficits” in people at risk of Alzheimer’s, who are currently healthy without any symptoms or problems.
The team looked at gaming data taken from 27,108 UK players aged between 50 and 75 – the most vulnerable age group for developing Alzheimer’s within the next decade.
They compared this benchmark data with results from a smaller group of 60 volunteers – half who were known to carry the APOE4 gene which is linked with Alzheimer’s disease.
“We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse on spatial navigation tasks. They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals,” said Professor Hornberger
“This is really important because these are people with no memory problems,” he highlighted.
Meanwhile, the performance of people without the APOE gene was in line with scores from the 27,000-strong control group.
The difference in performance between the two groups was particularly pronounced when the space to navigate was large and open.
“It is helping to shed light on how we use our brain to navigate”
Professor Hornberger said the fact the game could distinguish between the two groups was highly significant.
“It means that we can detect people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s based on how they play the game,” he said.
In a previous study, researchers tested how well people’s ability to play the Sea Hero Quest game mirrored their navigation skills in real life.
The study, led by France’s national centre for scientific research and published in the journal PLOS ONE, compared how 49 people performed playing the game and then trying to find their way around the streets of London and Paris.
The researchers found people’s ability to navigate around a virtual world was strongly similar to their performance in the real world.
They said their results confirmed the game can be used to test spatial orientation skills, rather than simply whether people were good at using playing video games or using mobile phones.
Gillian Coughlan, also from UEA, said the Sea Hero Quest project demonstrated “the power of harnessing large-scale citizen science projects and applying big data technologies to help improve the detection of diseases like Alzheimer’s.”
“We know spatial navigation difficulties are some of the earliest warning signs for the condition”
It also provided “an unprecedented chance to study how many thousands of people from different countries and cultures navigate space”, she noted.
“It is helping to shed light on how we use our brain to navigate and also to aid the development of more personalised measures for future diagnostics and drug treatment programmes in dementia research,” she said.
She said the study was just “the tip of the iceberg” and there was a lot more that could be done with the data.
Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the study was an “amazing” example of new research that could potentially change millions of lives.
“We often hear heart-breaking stories about people with dementia who get lost and can’t find their way home and we know spatial navigation difficulties like these are some of the earliest warning signs for the condition,” she said.
Detecting symptoms early was vital to ensure effective treatment, she highlighted.
“Using big data to help improve the early and accurate detection of the diseases that cause dementia can help revolutionise how we research and treat the condition,” she said.
“Sea Hero Quest is an amazing example of how pioneering research can help scientists get one step closer to a life-changing breakthrough,” she added.
Sea Hero Quest
Source: Deutsche Telekom’s Sea Hero Quest