A VR game is helping researchers learn about and potentially detect Alzheimer's

A very simple concept that has proved monumentally useful, Sea Hero Quest was designed with the intention of data collection in mind.

Sea Hero Quest, developed by Alzheimer's Research UK in collaboration with Deutsche Telekom, game studio Glitchers, University College London (UCL) and the University of East Anglia, is created to help researchers better understand the most common form of dementia by monitoring how the brains of players with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's work in relation to spatial navigation compared to those without.

Data generated from two minutes of gameplay is equivalent to five hours worth of data collected in a lab setting. The team studied how people who are genetically pre-disposed to Alzheimer's play the game compared with those who are not.

Making their scientific purposes clear up front, developers focused on Apple and Android users in the United Kingdom, letting them decide whether to allow researchers to collect data about how they maneuvered through the game's virtual world.

The findings are particularly important because a standard memory and thinking test could not distinguish between the risk and non-risk groups. More than 4.3 million people have so far downloaded the game app called Sea Hero Quest.

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"Our current findings show that we can reliably detect such subtle navigation changes in at-genetic-risk of Alzheimer's disease healthy people without any problem symptoms or complaints".

The game was developed as a method to recognize people who might be at risk of Alzheimer's but who are not manifesting any serious symptoms of the illness. Researchers were able to draw a conclusion from the data, which showed that carriers of the gene consistently performed worse in spatial navigation challenges and tended to take less optimised paths to their objective. "They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals", said Professor Michael Hornberger, who contributed to the project. The research team hopes this data together with the game will assist in the future in identifying people in need of treatment for dementia even before they have the late phase manifestations.

By focusing on navigation as an early identifier of Alzheimer's, the Sea Hero Quest test differed from the memory and cognition tests typically used in clinics, scientists said.

"This is really important because these are people with no memory problems", Hornberger said in a statement. Because the game has been available for a few year and installed then played by over three million people, researchers have gathered the tantamount of about 1,700 years of research data on Alzheimer's.

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