Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s. This degenerative brain disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, and almost 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is projected to be 14 million. Now there is a breakthrough that can detect people at risk for Alzheimer’s early on. What exactly is the breakthrough? A video game. The video game, called Sea Hero Quest, is played by millions of people around the globe. It helps researchers study how people who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s played the game, compared to players who are not. Playing the game for just a few minutes can identify the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
The game, Sea Hero Quest, was led by Deutsche Telekom and created by Saatchi & Saatchi. The design is meant to help researchers explore dementia by understanding how the brain works in relation to spatial navigation. Many people living with dementia experience getting lost, and are unable to navigate through familiar places. The game can be played on cell phones through an app, or online. Players will navigate their boat through a virtual world filled with mazes of islands and icebergs.
Researchers focused on the routes that people playing the game took, then compared it to those who had a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s with other players. Scientists collected their data from more than 27,000 players between ages 50 and 75 (the group at highest risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms within a decade) to create a global benchmark for how most people navigate the game. The study states:
“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. This is really important because these are people with no memory problems,” stated Professor Michael Hornberger, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School.
“Meanwhile, those without the ApoE4 gene traveled roughly the same distance as the 27,000 people forming the baseline score. This difference in performance was particularly pronounced where the space to navigate was large and open.” Hornberger says the study proved they can detect people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s based on
how they play the game.
What The Future Holds
Researchers claim every two minutes spent playing the game is equal to five hours of lab-based research. Sea Hero Quest has been downloaded by more than 4.3 million people around the world, equating to more than 1,700 years of research data on Alzheimer’s. The research conducted from the game can help improve early detection of the diseases that cause dementia, and how to treat them.
“Current diagnosis of dementia is strongly based on memory symptoms, which we know now are occurring when the disease is quite advanced,” Hornberger said. “Instead, emerging evidence shows that subtle spatial navigation and awareness deficits can precede memory symptoms by many years.”
Sea Horse Quest opened the door to a revolutionary way of scientists researching and treating dementia and Alzheimer’s. This is just the tip of the iceberg towards changing the future for millions of people’s lives.