Dissemination, Science

Study of spatial navigation in dementia offers free platform

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A fun app game for Apple and Android that at the same time generated valuable data for researchers.

After a successful journey gathering data from 4.3 million participating players, the ground-breaking citizen science app Sea Hero Quest is now available for studies of cognition and spatial navigation.

Sea Hero Quest started out in 2016 as a consumer mobile game to help scientists understand navigational abilities across the life course. By building a picture of how navigation ability changes in the general population, players could contribute to research identifying changes characteristic of early Alzheimer’s disease.

Originally led by Deutsche Telekom alongside Alzheimer’s Research UK and leaders in gaming, technology, academia and research, the award-winning app quickly became a citizen science phenomenon.

Tim Parry, Director at Alzheimer’s Research UK, helped to bring the app to the public. He said:

“We were really humbled by the response. It was more popular than we could ever have expected, and we ultimately collected data from over 117 years of combined game play. People from all over the world downloaded Sea Hero Quest and provided anonymised demographic information so that we now have an incredible wealth of data relating to navigation ability as we age. While clearly we embarked on the project with dementia studies in mind, we want to mobilise this resource towards the greatest possible benefit for global research. The app is free for researchers in any field, and we have developed a highly-usable study administration dashboard, with guidance and support for those looking to use it in their studies.”

Although the consumer version was removed from app stores when the original project concluded, Alzheimer’s Research UK has once again partnered with game developers GLITCHERS, University College London, the University of East Anglia, and web developers BoldLight to create a bespoke version for researchers.

This new phase of the project aims to provide researchers with a controllable, sensitive, safe, and easy way to administer digital cognitive 3assessment of navigation ability. The system allows researchers to create and fully manage prospective studies, invite targeted groups of participants to play through an easily download from the Android or Apple app stores, and provides access to study participants’ data in real time.

Over 4.3 million people joined the quest and supported dementia research.

How can you use Sea Hero Quest for your research?

Although the free consumer version was removed from app stores when the original project concluded, Sea Hero Quest has proven to be an invaluable tool for answering further questions in dementia research and other fields.

We have once again partnered with game developers GLITCHERS, University College London, the University of East Anglia, and web developers BoldLight to develop a bespoke version of the game for researchers to create and fully manage prospective studies, as well as access data in real time from an existing study.

This new version of the app will be available for players with an access token, generated by the Sea Hero Quest system according to the criteria and requirements of a specific project. Researchers will be able to invite a targeted group of participants to play Sea Hero Quest and generate data about their spatial navigation capabilities. Find out more about setting up your own cohort and study.

Largest study of spatial navigation abilities

Spatial navigation deficits are common in the early stages of symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding how these symptoms manifest and develop has been limited by a lack of reliable data on how navigational abilities change in healthy aging.

Since its launch, Sea Hero Quest has been played for a combined total of over 117 years by 4.3 million people around the world, providing scientists with data that would have taken traditional dementia research 176 centuries to collect.

This powerful data set from people of all ages and backgrounds around the world is now being used to help create a global benchmark spatial navigation and improve diagnostic approaches to early disease detection.

This dataset will ultimately be available to scientists through an open-source platform – further announcements on this to follow.

Professor Hugo Spires from University College London collaborated in the development and validation of the Sea Hero Quest app. Prof Spires’ team has led the analysis of the anonymous player data. He said:

“Our validation testing showed that performance in the game is strongly correlated with performance in real-world tasks. While data gathered from citizen science projects is inherently noisy compared to lab research, the unprecedented scale of the project so far means that our benchmarking data far exceeds the accuracy of previous research in this area. The citizen science element of this project has already revealed new insights into human spatial navigation at a planet-wide scale. We’ve found that these abilities are clustered according to economic wealth and gender inequalities globally, and this may have significant implications for cognitive testing in cross-cultural studies and multi-centre clinical trials.”

Professor Michael Hornberger from the University of East Anglia had the original idea for the project. Prof Hornberger has been leading on applying the platform to dementia research. He said:

“While obvious difficulties navigating commonly occur alongside cognitive problems in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, emerging evidence suggested that subtle navigation changes can precede memory deficits by many years. Detecting these changes could potentially allow for earlier diagnosis and, ultimately, earlier intervention. The challenge we have is reliably distinguishing the navigation changes we see in healthy ageing from the early signs of Alzheimer’s. The data from the mass-market phase of Sea Hero Quest is now helping to overcome this. My team has used the platform to show that we can detect people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer’s based on how they play the game. These are people without deficits in standard neuropsychological testing. We are still in the early stages of our work with Sea Hero Quest and what it can help us to learn about the early stages of dementia. I hope that other areas of medical and psychological research take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new phase of the project so that we maximise the potential of this powerful platform for research.”

To find out more about how to use Sea Hero Quest for research visit: www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/seaheroquest


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