Gaming app may help identify early onset dementia

A new digital game that anonymously records players’ movements is helping scientists to accurately identify the early stages of dementia.

Sea Hero Quest, in which players navigate seas on a hunt to save an old sailor’s memories, was developed by a team of scientists in the UK to test people’s spatial navigational abilities.

One of the aims of developing the game was to create a benchmark for the navigational ability of healthy people, which can then be used to establish “normal” decline of people’s sense of direction. The existence of such a benchmark will then help doctors to diagnose the onset of neurological conditions such as dementia, given loss of direction is often one of the first symptoms.


About 2.4 million people from across the world have downloaded the game since it launched in May this year, giving scientists unprecedented data to analyse in what has become the largest study of its kind to date.

Presenting the first findings of the study at the Nuroscience 2016 conference last week in San Diego, scientist Hugo Spiers said the data has enormous potential to support vital developments in dementia research, including the ability to diagnose dementia at early stages.

A key finding is that sense of direction declines consistently past the age of 20. Players aged 19 were 74 per cent accurate in remembering their starting point and shooting a flare back to this point while players aged 75 succeeded only 46 per cent of the time.

Another finding is that men appear to perform better than women on specific tasks. The researchers tried to account for the possibility that this indicates men have more experience with games, but still found a gender difference in performance.

Links have also been made between navigational skills and where participants lived. Players from Nordic countries showed the highest navigational skills among players from more than 190 nations. Next came people from Australia and New Zealand, and then people from other northern European countries.

The absence of language barriers in the game give it further advantage as a test than existing memory tests.

The scientists plan to begin testing dementia patients to match them against navigational skills in the healthy population from mid 2017.

Anyone can download the game for free from the App Store or Google Play and contribute to the ongoing research.

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