We've blogged before about how attitudes towards dementia, and our scientific understanding, have been perhaps a generation behind other health areas, like cancer or heart disease. What we're working on at Alzheimer's Research UK is how to close the gap, and to do it in far less time than a generation, before the impact of dementia overtakes us.
Everything we do at the charity - whether that's our innovative research programmes, or our campaign work - considers how we can do things differently to reach our ambitions and create change more quickly. If there's one health issue that demands some different thinking from all of us, it's dementia.
So when we were approached by telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom with an idea around developing a game to encourage phone users around the world to get involved in research, it felt like an innovative bit of thinking that attracted us.
A few months on, we've ended up with the fantastic Sea Hero Quest, a smartphone game that re-writes the rules on how we go about dementia research. Colourful, fun and addictive - as any good mobile game should be - Sea Hero Quest is a maze game that appeals to casual gamer in all of us. It also carries a poignant story behind the gameplay, as told by this beautiful introductory animation.
When playing, the game monitors several times a second how we navigate the mazes, reference landmarks and utilise our sense of direction. This builds a picture for the scientists at a population level of what normal navigation looks like across the ages. All the data is anonymously submitted, and with the sheer number of people who we hope will play the game, we can generate the largest crowd-sourced database of its kind, and have some fun while we do it. We're helping fund the analysis of the data which will take place at UCL.
How this links to dementia relates again to our use of spatial navigation which, for people with dementia, can be compromised or lost quite early on in the condition. However, we don't yet know enough about healthy navigational abilities to be able to develop with enough sensitivity a test to reliably detect problems with these abilities in dementia. Sea Hero Quest could help solve this in double quick time.
As players move around the game, their position is relayed securely and anonymously back to scientists. This is analysed using a heat map, which shows navigational decision-making. This gives scientists the data needed to see how everyone navigates through the various levels.
There is a bigger picture around the value of early detection in dementia. We know that treatments we're working hard to deliver in the coming years are almost certainly going to be more effective when people with dementia can access them as early as possible. It's therefore imperative we focus on early disease detection in tandem with treatment development - the two lean on each other heavily for success.
The other benefit that Sea Hero Quest's approach brings is the enormous saving on how this kind of research is conventionally delivered, and why the largest study of its kind to date featured fewer than 600 people. In order to undertake a maze test to measure navigational abilities, I would typically have to spot a study recruitment advert, travel to a test centre, fill in forms about myself and take the navigational test, all assisted by scientists and facilitators. It would be enjoyable, but also time-consuming, costly and potentially difficult to recruit for. Playing Sea Hero Quest for a couple of minutes on the bus could achieve the same outcome, and it's free for the player and super quick. You'll want to play for longer than a couple of minutes too.
The idea of a "Citizen Science" game is not new, but previous efforts in this area have perhaps fallen victim of being fun games with little scientific utility, or powerful games for research that relatively few people played. We hope Sea Hero Quest finds the sweet spot that balances the need for useful data with the appeal of a game worth playing. Download it, enjoy the experience and know that you're doing your little bit for the research effort. It really is a chance to #gameforgood.
Find out more about the project and download the game at www.seaheroquest.com