Virtual reality game could discover dementia in players years before traditional diagnosis

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A new mobile game called Sea Hero Quest VR could help to accelerate research in dementia and allow for those suffering from the disease to be diagnosed and treated decades before they start showing major symptoms.

The game presents players with a series of tasks set in virtual reality (VR) that are based around navigation and orientation. It collects data from its users by assessing how they solve puzzles and the accuracy of their understanding of the virtual space.

The scientists analysing the results said that just two minutes spent playing the game allows them to collect the amount of data equivalent to five hours of lab based research.

The VR game presents scientists with the opportunity for cross validation of the data collected by the mobile game and scientists hope to build on the rich data set already collected by using the latest in virtual reality technologies to gain greater insight into human spatial navigation behaviours. The anonymous spatial navigation data collected is stored in a secure T-Systems server in Germany.

Although the game has already been available on mobile platforms for over a year, this new version is designed specifically for VR.

Using VR, the amount of data gleaned from users will drastically increase in comparison to the previous touchscreen version as it allows them to track their exact head movements and provides an experience more similar to real world navigation tasks.

“What we’ve learnt over the last 10 years, largely from being able to scan the brains of patients, is that the diseases that underlie dementia start 15 or 20 years earlier,” said Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer, Alzheimer’s Research UK.

“What’s happening over those 15 or 20 years is that damage is very slowly building up in your brain. Your brain cells first of all start to struggle to perform and then they start to die off. It’s not until quite late on in the disease that you actually see symptoms.

“Our brains are incredibly resilient so they can cope with quite a bit of damage. As people we’re very good at compensating for things that we can’t do quite so well.

“Sea Hero Quest gives us the ability to diagnose and find those subtle changes in spatial navigation, how people move about the world in a much more fun and engaging way and on a much bigger scale than we’ve ever been able to do before. 

“It’s a great way of reaching millions of people to gather that data because until we know what normal, healthy individuals are like navigating, it’s very difficult to tell if somebody has got the early signs of dementia  and they’re having problems. Until you know the average, you haven’t got a comparator to see when someone’s struggling.”

The large dataset made available by the game also allows researchers to understand inherent differences between people of different ages, gender and where they are located.

The game has been developed in collaboration with University College London (UCL), the University of East Anglia and Alzheimer’s Research UK. The game itself was developed jointly with independent game designers, Glitchers.

Dr. Hugo Spiers of UCL, who has been leading the analysis of the anonymous player data collected by the game, said: “The intuitive nature of VR means that the study can be opened up to those who might not be able to grasp the function of the mobile game – some people with advanced dementia for example.”

The game has been developed to work with the Samsung Gear VR headset and will be available to download for free from the Oculus Store from today. Sea Hero Quest mobile is still available to download for free via the App Store and Google Play.