Phone game predicts Alzheimer’s

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, most experts agree that early diagnosis is vital so that available treatments can be started before there is too much damage to the brain. Designers of a new smartphone game claim their technology could help with early detection.

Currently, there are 50 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s. Experts predict that number could triple by 2050.

Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s relies on signs of memory problems that usually don’t show up until years after the disease has taken hold.

“Research shows us that the brain changes associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s begin decades before symptoms such as memory loss start,” says Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Research United Kingdom.

The simple game – a collaboration between the Alzheimer’s Research United Kingdom, the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University College London in the UK and Deutsche Telekom – uses spatial navigation to detect these memory problems before it is too late.

Ms Evans said that spatial navigation issues “are some of the earliest warning signs for the condition.”

“We often hear heartbreaking stories about people with dementia who get lost and can’t find their way home,” she added.

The Sea Hero Quest game focuses on this issue by encouraging players to find their way around various mazes. A study analysed the game data of 27,000 UK players between the ages of 50 and 75 and genetic testing from a group of 60 individuals. It revealed that more than half carried the APOE4 gene, which predisposes people to early onset Alzheimer’s, and that they were three times more likely to develop the disease.

According to Medical News Today, researchers were able to discover this anomaly based on the way they played Sea Hero Quest.

Those with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s “took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals” and “performed worse on spatial navigation tasks,” notes Professor Michael Hornberger, from the UEA. “This is really important because these are people with no memory problems.”

“[E]merging evidence shows that subtle spatial navigation and awareness deficits can precede memory symptoms by many years.”

Being able to detect the risk of Alzheimer’s with a simple game could lead to more effective diagnosis methods and future treatment.

So far, 4.3 million have played the game. Researchers say two minutes of game time is the equivalent of five hours of lab-based study.

Gillian Coughlan, from the UEA, says the project offers “an unprecedented chance to study how many thousands of people from different countries and cultures navigate space.”

“It demonstrates the power of harnessing large-scale citizen science projects and applying big data technologies to help improve the early detection of diseases like Alzheimer’s,” she added.

“This is the tip of the iceberg, and there is still a lot more work to do to extract and capitalise on the wealth of data collected.”

Are you surprised that a simple smartphone game can help detect Alzheimer’s early?

NB: The game may not yet be available on the App Store in Australia.

Related articles:
On the scent of a fix for dementia
Science cracks Alzheimer’s mystery
Drinkable cure for Alzheimer’s

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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