A virtual reality game could be the answer to helping scientists diagnose Alzheimer’s disease far sooner than is currently possible.
As there are no drugs available that prevent or slow the degenerative neurological condition, it is essential that medical teams are able to give an early diagnosis before symptoms become debilitating.
Now the ‘Sea Hero Quest’ video game, which requires players to captain a boat, is helping experts conduct the biggest experiment of its kind in dementia history.
The ability to navigate is one of the first things to do when the brain develops amyloid plaques, that eventually build up, and cause the brain to deteriorate.
So the game requires participants to use their sense of direction to chart a course through complex waterways, desert islands, oceans and even a group of sea monsters (who just want to be fed hotdogs).
The game, which first appeared in a smartphone app format and attracted 3 million players, is allowing a study on a scale never seen before.
Dr David Reynolds, Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Until we got ‘Sea Hero Quest’, the largest study looking at spatial navigation was about 600 people. We’ve not got three million. So that’s orders of magnitude more information. And with that information we can understand much better what normal looks like.
“Because until you know what normal healthy people, how well they perform, it’s difficult to tell when somebody starts to have problems,” and in fact the team have already found that your sense of direction declines consistently from age nineteen.
Due to the success of the app, the team, funded by Deutsche Telekom, have now converted it into the virtual reality format, which Reynolds says offers even greater insight: “In the early stages where those problems they [patients] have got are perhaps very small and subtle compared to a healthy individual.
“What the virtual reality game really adds is much more fine grain detail because people are immersed in the world.”
Anonymous data will be collected during play and then assessed by neuroscientists at University College London, University of East Anglia and ETH Zurich.
They have also found that men generally have a better sense of direction and Nordic nations outperform the rest of the world.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, a degenerative and progressive neurological disease, affecting an estimated 850,000 people in the UK, according to the NHS.