A new mobile game has been downloaded more than 4.3 million times, after it was found to be able to identify players more genetically at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Sea Hero Quest is designed to allow users to navigate their way around a series of islands and icebergs to find treasure.
The key feature of the game is that players must remember the routes they took previously in order to be successful. Those who cannot are more likely to be susceptible to dementia - a condition that has a better prognosis when detected early.
Scientists carried out a study into the game as a method of early diagnosis and found that it can successfully identify those genetically more at risk. The data created by people playing the game could in the future be used to create more personalised treatments for Alzheimer’s.
Sea Hero Quest is the product of a number of organisations all working together. University College London, the University of East Anglia (UEA), Alzheimer's Research UK, the telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom and developer Glitchers all lent their expertise to the project.
Dr Michael Hornberger, a professor of applied dementia research at UEA, led the most recent study into its effectiveness. He said: “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 we can reliably detect such subtle navigation changes in at-genetic-risk of Alzheimer's disease healthy people without any problem symptoms or complaints.”
He went on to emphasise the importance of identifying those at risk of developing the disease as early as possible. With estimates suggesting that some 135 million people worldwide will have dementia by 2050, this is the best way to try and reverse that trend.
Analysis of 60 players between the ages of 50 and 75 was undertaken for the study, with their game data and genetic testing taken into consideration. 31 of the participants were found to carry the APOE4 gene, which more than doubles the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Approximately a quarter of UK citizens have a copy of the gene, which explains why the condition is so widespread. It also makes carriers more susceptible to Alzheimer’s onset from an earlier age.
The risk becomes three to five times more likely in people who have a double dose of the APOE4 gene, which means they’ve inherited from both of their parents. This is thought to be the case for just two per cent of the UK’s population, but identifying them could become increasingly important.
In the Sea Hero Quest study, scientists found that the APOE4 carriers took less efficient routes to achieve checkpoint goals. This lack of proficiency in spatial navigation tasks could provide telltale signs about future diagnoses of dementia and Alzheimer’s.