A mobile game that tests spatial navigation skills has raised hopes of a breakthrough in diagnosis after being played played by more than 2.4 million people.
Sea Hero Quest, a collaboration between Alzheimer's Research UK, Deutsche Telekom and leading technology and research organisations, is the largest study of dementia to be conducted.
The charity said the huge number of people who had taken part in Sea Hero Quest since it was launched in May had generated more than 63 years of gameplay, equating to more than 9,400 years of equivalent lab-based research in this area. The second-largest study of this kind used 599 participants.
The game involves players navigating a boat around desert islands and across oceans, while collecting items along the way. The research works by recording a player’s sense of direction and navigational abilities and sending that data to the researchers.
The initial results found that people's spatial navigation abilities begin to decline from early adulthood and continue on this trajectory into later life. Those aged 19 were 74 per cent likely to accurately hit a target during the game, whereas those aged 75 had 46 per cent accuracy.
Memory, which Alzheimer's Research UK has described as the "gold standard" for dementia diagnosis, declines naturally with ageing, which can make it difficult to determine whether someone has dementia or poor memory because they are getting older. Spatial navigation is another problem that people face in the early stages of dementia, and the team set out to use Sea Hero Quest to understand more about how this ability varies naturally across the general population.
Dr Hugo Spiers of University College London, who has been leading the research, explained the study's importance.
"This is the only study of its kind, on this scale, to date," he said. "Its accuracy greatly exceeds that of all previous research in this area.
"The findings the game is yielding have enormous potential to support vital developments in dementia research. The ability to diagnose dementia at early stages, well before patients exhibit any signs of general memory loss, would be a milestone. This study is thus giving us the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of millions of people living with dementia and those at risk of developing the disease in the future."
Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, which is co-funding the analysis of the data, said that problems with spatial navigation were often an early warning signal of dementia and these problems could form the basis of a diagnostic test for the disease.
She said that, although the results from Deutsche Telekom had only scratched the surface of the data, there would be much more to come.
"Sea Hero Quest has provided unprecedented amounts of data on spatial navigation across the world’s population, which is not only revealing key insights into human behaviour, but also has the potential to inform the development of future diagnostic tests," she said.
"Big data has the potential to address some of the most fundamental questions that remain in science, and this project is a great example of how millions of people can contribute to research from the comfort of their own sofas."
Further analysis of the data, which is expected to take another two years to complete, will assess six other demographics tracked by the game, including education level, handedness, self-rated spatial navigation ability, the geographical environments in which players grew up, hours of sleep and amount of time spent travelling per day.