VR game Sea Hero Quest is helping neuroscientists learn out more about dementia

A virtual-reality game is helping dementia researchers better understand the disease thanks to 3.5 million people contributing “the equivalent of 15,000 years of similar lab-based research”.

According to a new article in the science journal PNAS (thanks, Kotaku), the BAFTA-nominated game Sea Hero Quest was developed by UK studio Glitchers to help identify people with early symptoms of dementia – symptoms that are often too subtle to be spotted by standard medical testing.  

“To address this growing health threat, in 2016, we developed Sea Hero Quest for mobile to disrupt data collection methods and create the first global benchmark for how humans navigate,” developer Glitchers states on its website. “Assessing one’s spatial ability is an important stage in the diagnosis of the condition. Since its launch, 3.5 million people in 193 countries have played Sea Hero Quest and contributed the equivalent of 15,000 years of similar lab-based research.”

Designed in partnership with leading neuroscientists, Deutsche Telekom, and leading academics from a range of European universities, the game hopes to generate scientifically-credible data to further our understanding of dementia in an “engaging and fun experience”. And it seems to be doing precisely that.

Studies currently isolate players known to carry the APOE4 gene – thought to dramatically increase an individual’s chances of developing dementia later on in life – and those who do not.

“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,” said Professor Michael Hornberger, who contributed to the project.

The developers of the game purport the equivalent of 15,000 years of similar lab-based research has already been generated by the game, and – incredibly – two minutes spent playing this game is reportedly the equivalent of five hours of lab-based research.

“We have never seen anything undertaken in dementia research at this scale before,” said Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, Hilary Evans. “The data set that Sea Hero Quest generates is truly unprecedented.”

About Vikki Blake

It took 15 years of civil service monotony for Vikki to crack and switch to writing about games. She has since become an experienced reporter and critic working with a number of specialist and mainstream outlets in both the UK and beyond, including Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, IGN, MTV, and Variety.

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