Data from a popular gaming app is helping researchers determine users' future genetic risk for developing Alzheimer's disease. (Image courtesy of Deutsche Telekom's Sea Hero Quest)

Data from a popular gaming app is helping researchers determine users’ future genetic risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. (Image courtesy of Deutsche Telekom’s Sea Hero Quest)

Sea Hero Quest, a specially designed spatial navigation mobile phone game, may help detect people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, even prior to the appearance of any signs of it, according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

The game, developed by Antoine Coutrot, a CNRS researcher at the Laboratoire des sciences du numérique in Nantes, France (CNRS/Ecole centrale de Nantes/Université de Nantes/IMT Atlantique) and English colleagues at University College London and the University of East Anglia, has been downloaded and played by more than 4.3 million people worldwide.

Gaming data from this app is helping researchers to gain a better understanding of dementia by seeing how the brain works in relation to spatial navigation, according to news releases from CNRS and University of East Anglia.

As players make their way through mazes of islands and icebergs, the research team translated every 0.5 seconds of game play into scientific data.

Results from studying the gameplay data, published in the journal PNAS, suggest that people who are genetically at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease can be distinguished from those who are not on specific levels of the Sea Hero Quest game.

The findings are particularly important because a standard memory and thinking test could not distinguish between the risk and non-risk groups, the University of East Anglia release explains.

“Dementia will affect 135 million people worldwide by 2050. We need to identify people earlier to reduce their risk of developing dementia in the future,” says lead researcher Prof Michael Hornberger, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, in the release.

“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,” he adds.

In the study, the team studied gaming data taken from 27,108 UK players between the ages of 50 and 75. They then compared this benchmark data with a smaller lab-based group of 60 people who underwent genetic testing.

In the smaller lab group, 31 volunteers carried the APOE4 gene, which is known to be linked with Alzheimer’s disease, and 29 people did not. Both lab groups were matched for age, gender, education, and nationality with the benchmark cohort.

Approximately one in every four people 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, the release suggests.

“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. This is really important because these are people with no memory problems,” Hornberger notes.

“Meanwhile, those without the APOE4 gene traveled 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,” he adds.

[Source(s): University of East Anglia, CNRS, EurekAlert, Science Daily]