Virtual reality game may help scientists spot dementia earlier

August 30, 2017

Around 850,000 people in the UK alone are living with dementia – a set of symptoms, including memory loss and difficulties with language and problem-solving, that could impair a person’s mental abilities to perform daily tasks. This number is expected to rise to 2 million by the year 2051.

However, most people will have had the disease for more than a decade before their symptoms appear.

In order to help doctors spot the earliest signs of dementia, computer game developers worked with research scientists from the University College London and University of East Anglia in the UK and ETH Zurich in Switzerland to develop a virtual reality (VR) game that could test one’s navigation abilities, which is one of the first things to go with dementia.

The project is a part of the world’s biggest dementia research experiment.

The original smartphone app game had 3 million players, but the move to virtual reality should allow scientists to investigate in greater detail.

In the virtual world of Sea Hero Quest VR, the player captains a boat. The challenge is to use one’s sense of direction to chart a course through complex waterways, desert islands and icy oceans.

But Sea Hero Quest VR is not just a simple game. Anonymous data from players will be collected and, later, assessed by neuroscientists.

Max Scott-Slade, from the computer game developers Glitchers, said it is interesting to turn a normally lab-based and quite boring subject matter into something more fun and bring it to the public.

“The value for us is to create this much richer dataset, we’re capturing 15 times more data from the VR version because we’re separating out where the head looks and where the boat’s moving,” Scott-Slade said.

The findings of the first game, presented at an international meeting of neuroscientists in 2016, showed someone’s sense of direction declines consistently after their teenage years.

The data also suggested men have a slightly better sense of direction than women and that the Nordic nations outperform the rest of the world, although it is not yet clear why.

Prof Christophe Hoelscher, chairman of cognitive science at ETH Zurich, said: “No project ever has collected data from 3 million people of real interactions in this depth.

“That allows us to do a number of analyses that you would never be able to do with classical studies.”

The group does not expect the same number of people to take up the virtual reality update because VR headsets are still not as popular as smartphones. However, they do expect to get far more data than would ever be possible in the laboratory.

The project, which is funded by Deutsche Telekom, still has a long way to go, but the ultimate aim is a test that can pick up dementia in its earliest stages.

Dr. David Reynolds, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said what they really want to achieve is be able to identify people with dementia 10 or 15 years earlier than what is possible at the moment. “A game like Sea Hero Quest and understanding how we navigate will help us get to that much earlier diagnosis,” he added.

Currently, there are no drugs that can prevent or even slow down the symptoms of dementia. However,the possibility of an effective treatment in the future is widely accepted with the condition that doctors will be able to give it to patients long before the symptoms appear and the brain has been irreversibly damaged.

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