Alzheimer’s affects everyone. Whether a family member suffers from it, you have a friend dealing with the disease, or you fear you’ll someday spot symptoms in yourself, it’s undoubtedly debilitating and scary. Worse yet, it’s practically untreatable as of yet, with no viable vaccines on the horizon.

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An elderly man takes a peaceful stroll through a field.

Now, researchers have developed an innovative video game that claims to be able to identify the early stages of Alzheimer’s in ways no available medical test can match. The group recently had the details of their study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), which was founded in 1914 and continues to be recognized as one of the most-cited and all-inclusive multidisciplinary scientific journals in the world.

Setting Up the Study

Brain scans revealing the cognitive difference between normally-functioning brains and brains affected by Alzheimer's.

Placing their focus squarely on transparency, the researchers spread the word they were conducting a scientific study centered on United Kingdom Android and Apple users that entailed playing a mobile game called Sea Hero Quest. The players were then told that data would be gathered on the way they traversed through the game’s virtual world. An incredible 4.3 million players partook in the experiment, a response that evoked the tag “the largest dementia study in history” from the research team.

Next, the scientists narrowed the scope of the study to over 27,000 people between 50 and 75 years old, the sector with the maximum threat of showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s in the next 10 years. This gave them a clearer idea of how the majority of people in this age range played the game.

Playing Sea Hero Quest

Stills from the "Sea Hero Quest" Game used to text UK patients for early signs of Alzheimer's.

The game itself is simple. Players use their thumbs to navigate a small boat through a sequence of routes in a nautical network. According to the published study, the researchers chose this type of game based on the fact that “spatial navigation is emerging as a critical factor in identifying preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.” It was created as part of a collaborative project that included researchers from the University of East Anglia, University College London, and Alzheimer’s Research UK. Glitchers designed the app, while the overarching study was funded by Deutsche Telekom.

The Results

Stills from the "Sea Hero Quest" Game used to text UK patients for early signs of Alzheimer's.

Ultimately, the study concluded that players who had a genetic predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s chose less proficient ways to reach specific destinations in the app. Interestingly enough, the group that chose these routes displayed no memory problems in any other areas.

Shortly after the results were released, Michael Hornberger, the project’s lead researcher, wrote in a press release: “Current diagnosis of dementia is strongly based on memory symptoms, which we know now are occurring when the disease is quite advanced. Instead, emerging evidence shows that subtle spatial navigation and awareness deficits can precede memory symptoms by many years.”

Related Discovery

Pathways taken by different patients while playing the "Sea Hero Quest" mobile game.

As an addendum to their study, the researchers had 60 subjects play the game in a lab setting. The group included 31 people who had the APOE4 gene, which boosts the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and 29 without the gene. The outcome disclosed a distinct variation in patterns chosen to reach destinations in the higher-risk subjects, whose paths were consistently less resourceful.