A team of researchers from University College London and the University of East Anglia has created a game titled Sea Hero Quest that could help scientists detect dementia in patients quicker. The game was recently launched and is available for free on iOS and Android devices. The game received around $1.2 million in funding to develop and market the team to attract more users. Each decision the player makes will be anonymously reported back to the team of scientists at the University College London. The game focuses on a sailor going on an adventure to retrieve his father’s lost memories.

Game Could Help Scientists Detect Dementia

In Sea Hero Quest players navigate through sea waters while spotting various seas monsters. Users will travel through the fictional world, sailing through mazes and spotting different landmarks. The way the users traverse through the waters and advances in the game will be analyzed by the team of scientists. This data will be used to develop a model on how we navigate through three dimensional spaces.

Patients with dementia often find it difficult to navigate in real life due to impaired motor skills. The loss of navigational skills is one of the first signs of dementia, but doctors often find it difficult to pinpoint the loss as it could be simply caused by old age and not just dementia. The scientists incorporated five proven experiments into the game: testing basic navigational way finding; recognizing landmarks; navigating complex situations involving difficult decision making based on several options; sense of direction; and response and rote learning, a memorization technique based on repetitive learning.

Sea Hero Quest will help set a baseline for users’ navigational skills that don’t have dementia. The scientists can then compare that data with that of dementia patients. They are hoping that by using this data they will hopefully be able to diagnose dementia in people before it escalates and becomes more severe.

Dr Hugo Spiers, a neuroscientist at University College London, helped develop the game. He believes that the game will truly revolutionize the way scientists diagnose diseases. He said that currently there are very limited tools capable of doing such innovative research and more efficient methods are required to detect, diagnose and monitor dementia at an early stage.

Dr Spiers said, “What is motivating us is that this will make a real difference. The biggest citizen science project like this until now involved 600 people. We are looking at hundreds of thousands, and anyone could play it. Someone in their 90s can use a touch screen.”

The team took help from Glitchers, a UK based game development company, which played a vital role in developing the game that could appeal to younger audiences. The scientists were developing the mazes based on experiments from the 1960s. The game developers thought that the game would be too boring and most players would be turned off from it, so they focused heavily on making the game more interesting.

The team hopes to get 100,000 active users to play the game by November 2016 and move to phase 2 of the project which will involve dementia patients by next year. Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research, UK, Hilary Evans, said, “We have never seen anything undertaken in dementia research at this scale before. The dataset that Deutsche Telekom’s Sea Hero Quest generates is truly unprecedented. Until now these kinds of investigations took years to coordinate and at best gave us a snapshot of how a very small sample of volunteers behaved. This is exactly the kind of innovation required to unlock the next breakthrough in dementia research.”

So What Is Dementia Exactly?

Dementia is a generic term used to describe decline in the brain’s ability to perform basic functions. Alzheimer’s is the most common kind of dementia which accounts for 60-80% of all dementia cases. The second most common kind of dementia is vascular dementia which occurs after a stroke. Dementia is not any specific kind of disease but is a term used to define a range of memory related symptoms such as memory loss, decline in spatial recognition, impaired reasoning and logic, decreased motor and speech skills. Most types of dementia are progressive i.e., the symptoms and patient’s condition get worse with time.

About one person out of 20 over the age of 65 gets Alzheimer’s and one in 1,000 gets Alzheimer’s before the age of 65.

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, hence brain cells’ ability to effectively communicate with each other gets affected. The damage to a particular region of the brain affects that region’s function. For example, damage to the region of the brain that controls verbal communication will affect a person’s speech abilities. Different types of dementia affect different regions of the brain. For instance, Alzheimer’s affects the hippocampus, region of the brain that controls memory and learning. That’s why memory loss is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.

In some rare cases, Alzheimer’s could be caused by genetic factors as well. On average, half the children of an affected parent will develop the disease and the onset age is usually low between 35 to 60, known as early onset Alzheimer’s. According to the Dementia UK, 2nd edition 2014, Alzheimer’s Society, it is estimated that there are 42,325 people in the UK who have been diagnosed with young onset dementia. They represent around 5% of the 850,000 people with dementia.

Dementia can be cured in one in three cases, but in case of Alzheimer’s, it cannot be cured.

Due to the extreme nature of the disease and the pain and frustration it causes the family members, the move to develop Sea Hero Quest is greatly appreciated. More developers will follow their lead to develop games focused on finding cure for many other complex diseases such as cancer and heart disease.