A video game to detect Alzheimer's

The developers believe the game could be a tool for early diagnosis.
The developers believe the game could be a tool for early diagnosis. / SUR
  • Sea Hero Quest is a tool being used to help diagnose illnesses affecting cognitive abilities

Video games, as well as being a leading form of entertainment, are now starting to penetrate new sectors, whether it is to enhance one’s capabilities in certain professions or as a type of medical therapy.

A decade ago, Nintendo launched Brain Training for its DS console. It was a pioneering video game which was aimed primarily at adults with the objective of maintaining one’s mental capacities. Now, Sea Hero Quest has been released, a program which employs virtual reality and as a type of therapy but also as a diagnostic tool.

Brain Training is now used a lot, along with other video games, in residences and day centres for the elderly. Sea Hero Quest, as well as improving the user’s mental capacities, gives specialists a tool to examine the user and diagnose Alzheimers and other types of dementia, most of which are degenerative.

Though it appears to be a run-of-the-mill video game at first glance, in which you have to avoid traps, shoot at targets or simply flee from sea monsters, the program is capable of measuring the player’s mental capacities.

As is the case with the original Brain Training (several updated versions have since been released), this new video game aims to stimulate the participant’s brain through a series of memorising or orientation tasks. However, it also allows the collection of data which can point towards the first signs of the illness.

One of the earliest signs of the illness is the loss of orientation, but there is very little data that compares cognitive abilities through the ages, a gap this game hopes to bridge.

When someone plays Sea Hero Quest for just two minutes, scientists can collect the same amount of data as they would have been able to in five hours from various other tests. "This gives us a tremendous amount of information and allows us to understand how men and women of different ages act differently," David Reynolds, head of the team of investigators at the Alzheimer's Research Institute in the UK, explains to AFP.

Use of the brain

In order to play Sea Hero Quest, participants have to use "different parts of their brain", explains Reynolds. "Given that these parts are used differently according to each type of dementia, it also allows us to link the activity to what’s going on in the brain."

Sea Hero Quest is not new on the market. In fact, it first became available on mobiles in 2016. But now, with the new virtual reality technology, scientists can now obtain much more valuable information. "The technology in the headset helps us to see where they're looking as well as where they’re going," says Lauren Presser, one of the game's creators. "Then we know if the people are lost and how they behave in these situations."

Globally, around 50 million people suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's, according to recent estimates. By 2050, this figure could rise to as much as 132 million. This illness has no cure, but the creators of the video game hope that eventually it will allow an earlier diagnosis.

Reynolds believes that the game in itself can be a form of prevention:"We know that to maintain the brain, just like the body, it’s a good idea to keep it active and trained."

The game, described as "the broadest study of dementia in all history", has been developed by Deutsche Telekom, Alzheimer's Research UK, experts from University College London and the University of East Anglia.

The mobile version of Sea Hero Quest quickly captured the attention of the scientific community but its success can also be measured by its figures:three million people, from 193 countries have downloaded it so far.