Alzheimer's disease is typically first noticed in the form of memory problems, although the condition is typically quite advanced by that stage. In order to catch it earlier, scientists have developed a video game that assesses players' spatial navigation skills.

Called Sea Hero Quest, the game can be played on smartphones or tablets, and was developed in a partnership between Germany's Deutsche Telekom, France's CNRS research group, and Britain's University College London and University of East Anglia. First released in 2016, it has since been refined based on feedback from over 4.3 million people who have downloaded and played it worldwide.

The goal of the game is to find the quickest route to a series of checkpoint buoys, while making one's way through a maze of icebergs and islands. This task tests players' ability to navigate, a deterioration of which is thought be an early symptom of Alzheimer's. In tests that were performed with volunteers in the streets of Paris and London, it was found that individuals' navigational abilities within the game correlated with their abilities in real-world environments.

The researchers thus established a baseline of navigational performance, based on gaming data taken from 27,108 UK players aged 50 to 75. They then tested a group of 60 people in a lab – those test subjects matched the larger baseline group in regards to age, gender, education and nationality. That said, 31 of the lab subjects carried the APOE4 gene, which is associated with Alzheimer's, while the 29 others did not.

When the test group's gaming data was analyzed, it was found that the APOE4 carriers performed worse at spatial navigation, taking less efficient routes to the buoys. Significantly, however, those same test subjects performed just as well as the non-carriers on traditional memory-based neuropsychological surveys.

"Research shows us that the brain changes associated with diseases like Alzheimer's begin decades before symptoms like memory loss start and for future Alzheimer's treatments to be effective, it's likely they must be given at the earliest stages of disease, before there's too much damage to the brain," says East Anglia researcher Gillian Coughlan. "Sea Hero Quest is an amazing example of how pioneering research can help scientists get one step closer to a life-changing breakthrough."

View gallery - 2 images