Detecting Alzheimer’s at an early stage gives patients the best chance to adjust, prepare, and plan for the future. The only problem is that diagnosing the disease can be very difficult. In search of a more effective method of detecting the disease, researchers from Germany created a virtual reality game designed to identify individuals who might have early and mild symptoms of dementia that medical tests aren’t able to detect – and it seems to be working. In the game, called Sea Hero Quest, players have to navigate and control a virtual boat. They are given a map and shown checkpoints; then the map is taken away and players must navigate to these checkpoints in the game world without the map.
Researchers involved with the project studied people who carried the APOE4 gene – which is thought to increase that person’s risk of developing dementia – as they played the game. They then compared these people’s results to the results of folks who played the game who don’t have that gene. The findings showed that those carrying the APOE4 gene performed worse on spatial navigation tasks – taking less efficient routes to checkpoint goals. Using data gathered from thousands of players who downloaded and played Sea Hero Quest, researchers were able to create a baseline that their test results could be compared to. In the future, the team hopes the game will help identify people who need treatment for dementia before they begin suffering from worse symptoms later on.