New game accelerates our understanding of dementia

New game accelerates our understanding of dementia


An exciting new partnership between Deutsche Telekom (DT) and academics from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University College London (UCL) has led to the development of a free mobile app designed to collect data to inform dementia research.

The app was launched on 3rd May 2016 and is free to download. Sea Hero Quest is a multi-level adventure game in which the player is an explorer traversing the seas, collecting the lost pieces of their father’s ocean journal using a variety of landmarks and visual cues to help them navigate through this fantasy land. As the game advances the route becomes more complex and details such as the changing weather challenge the explorer to stay on course.

Developed by leading game company Glitchers, the game does not look like a cognitive experiment but rather a fun game with engaging graphics and intriguing creatures which is exciting to play. However, subject to each player’s consent, the game will feed back data on the factors that affect users ability to navigate through the mazes, giving researchers an invaluable insight into navigation in a normal, healthy population.

In many kinds of dementia memory loss and spatial disorientation are a major symptom with dementia sufferers finding themselves lost in familiar environments such as going to the local shops or a friend’s house. The mechanisms by which humans remember and navigate, however, are not well understood so the data collected from the app will help researchers to understand the progression of dementia and use this to measure the success of new therapies and drugs to delay symptoms.

Dr Michael Hornberger, a translational neuroscientist from UEA, who specialises in decision making and memory, helped DT develop the idea with Dr Hugo Spiers of UCL. This collaboration represents a unique opportunity as previous research has been limited by the number of people who can take part in a trial. By creating an app, the productive power of millions of people can be harnessed, collecting an unprecedented amount of information to support research.

Hans-Christian Schwingen, DT’s Chief Brand Officer said: “Dementia steals your memorable moments, meaning they can no longer be shared with the ones you love. Because we at Deutsche Telekom believe in the power of sharing, our role is to assure that sharing still will be possible by helping to protect these moments. We thought that we could look at this problem from a different angle and really do something to speed up the research needed. It’s a total re-invention of the way this kind of research data is collected, stored and accessed: it’s engaging, scientifically valid and secure. The productive power of playing the game on a large scale can change the course of affairs in the world, or at least make it a bit better.”

Dr Hornberger explains: “Memory is very culturally and verbally specific with previous research often focussing on people remembering words or objects, so it cannot be easily replicated in other countries. This app can collect data from people worldwide so has the potential to be the first globally applicable diagnostic tool for measuring memory ever developed.”

DT have led the development, distribution and promotion of the game and will pass all the data collected to the research teams to start developing models of normal behaviour and looking for differences in the early onset of dementia.

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