Smartphone game can help detect Alzheimer’s risk

A specially designed smartphone game can detect people at the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, say researchers. The game called Sea Hero Quest, downloaded and played by over 4.3 million people worldwide, helped researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) better understand dementia by seeing how the brain works in relation to spatial navigation. The game has been developed by Deutsche Telekom in partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK, University College London (UCL) and the University of East Anglia.
Lead researcher Prof Michael Hornberger, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Dementia will affect 135 million people worldwide by 2050. We need to identify people earlier to reduce their risk of developing dementia in the future.
“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.
“Our current findings show that we can reliably detect such subtle navigation changes in at-genetic-risk of Alzheimer’s disease healthy people without any problem symptoms or complaints. Our findings will inform future diagnostic recommendations and disease treatments to address this devastating disease.”
As players made their way through mazes of islands and icebergs, the research team translated every 0.5 seconds of gameplay into scientific data. The team studied how people who are genetically pre-disposed to Alzheimer’s play the game compared with those who are not.
The results, published in the journal PNAS, showed people genetically at risk of developing Alzheimer’s can be distinguished from those who are not on specific levels of the Sea Hero Quest game.
The findings are particularly important because a standard memory and thinking test cannot distinguish between the risk and non-risk groups. “Our findings show we can reliably detect such subtle navigation changes in at-genetic-risk of Alzheimer’s compared with healthy people without any symptoms or complaints,” said Hornberger.
The team studied gaming data taken from 27,108 UK players, aged 50-75 years and the most vulnerable age-group to develop Alzheimer’s in the next decade. They compared this benchmark data with a smaller lab-based group of 60 people who underwent genetic testing.
In the smaller lab group, 31 volunteers carried the APOE4 gene, which is known to be linked with Alzheimer’s disease, and 29 people did not. Both lab groups were matched for age, gender, education and nationality with the benchmark cohort.
Genetic risk for Alzheimer’s is complicated. People (around one in every four) who have one copy of the APOE4 gene are around three times more likely to be affected by Alzheimer’s and develop the disease at a younger age.
Prof Hornberger said: “We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse on spatial navigation tasks. They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals. — IANS