MAY 05, 2016 2:26 PM PDT

Mobile Game App To Speed Up Dementia Research

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Harnessing the power of mobile devices for science, neuroscientists unveiled a new interactive game that provides entertainment while simultaneously helping dementia research. As players navigate their way through the 3D environment of the game Sea Hero Quest, their spatial abilities are recorded and collectively used as a guide to measure dementia onset. This is the largest spatial navigation study to date, and is expected to generate huge amounts of data to propel research for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
 
The game was the brainchild of researchers from University College London, University of East Anglia, Alzheimer's Research UK and Glitchers. In Sea Hero Quest, players set sail to search for artifacts and memories while battling sea creatures. The paths players choose are used to generate a “heat map” of their spatial navigation abilities.
 
"Every element of the game was carefully crafted to be as fun and exciting as it is scientifically valid," per the Sea Hero Quest website. Indeed, spatial navigation is one of the first skills affected by dementia onset. As such, the team hopes that with many thousands of people playing the game, the map will provide an accurate range of normal spatial abilities, which will serve as a point of reference for detecting early onset of dementia.
 
Playing Sea Hero Quest can help scientists learn how people get lost
"Sea Hero Quest can tell us: 'How do people get lost?' said Hugo Spiers, a neuroscientist at University College London, who is leading the research on the game's data. "Fundamentally people with dementia -- Alzheimer's dementia -- struggle to navigate, and, on a scientific level, we don't know enough of how people navigate to help really pin down what's going wrong," he said.
 
The game will be a vital component in providing the missing information. The team estimates that just 2 minutes of game time provides the equivalent of nearly five hours worth of data for analysis. What’s more, the mobile gaming platform allows the study to be scaled up considerably, with ease. "In my research team, I could only test about 200 people a year, and that's working hard," said Spiers. "But last night I tested 200 people in one minute with this game." They estimate that the speed of data generation with the game is approximately 150 times faster than in-lab experiments.
 
"Providing the research community with access to an open-source data set of this nature, at this scale, in such a short period of time is exactly the kind of innovation required to unlock the next breakthrough in dementia research,” said Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer's Research UK.
 
In the 2 days since its official launch party, Sea Hero Quest has been downloaded over 7,000 times from the Google Play Store. The team hopes to attract at least 100,000 players in total by the end of 2016 in order to accrue enough data for a comprehensive report. “It's a massive online citizen science experiment that will give us an idea of what is 'normal' through this game. If we tile that information together, we can get a sense of how dementia changes over a lifetime, and other demographic factors,” said Spiers.

Additional sources: BBC, CNN
About the Author
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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