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Sea Hero Quest game can predict risk of Alzheimer’s: study

New research from the University of East Anglia in the UK claims that a new mobile phone game can predict which people are at risk of Alzheimer’s.

The research studied how people who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s play the game compared with those who are not.

The game, called Sea Hero Quest, was developed in conjunction with Alzheimer’s Research UK, University College London (UCL), the University of East Anglia and game developers Glitchers, and has been downloaded 4.3 million times worldwide.

This is an innovative way to research as having three million players globally equates to more than 1,700 years’ worth of lab-based research.

The team was able to study gaming data taken from 27,108 UK players aged between 50 and 75 – the most vulnerable age group to developing Alzheimer’s in the next decade – as they make their way around mazes and islands and translated every 0.5 seconds of gameplay into scientific data.

The results, published in the journal PNAS, showed that on specific levels of the Sea Hero Quest game, people who are genetically at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease can be distinguished from those who are not.

The findings are particularly important because a standard memory and thinking test could not distinguish between the risk and non-risk groups.

Lead researcher Professor Michael Hornberger, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, 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 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.”

The research compared the benchmark data to a smaller lab group of 60 people. These people underwent genetic testing and 31 of the group were found to have the APOE4 gene, which is known to be linked with Alzheimer’s disease.

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.

“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,” Hornberger said.

“This is really important because these are people with no memory problems.

“Meanwhile, those without the APOE4 gene travelled roughly the same distance as the 27,000 people forming the baseline score. This difference in performance was particularly pronounced where the space to navigate was large and open.

“It means that we can detect people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s based on how they play the game.”

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