Virtual reality game gathers data for dementia researchers

Navigating an ice-walled lake or scouring a swamp for a hidden monster may sound like a fun premise for a virtual-reality video game. But there’s a serious purpose behind the new game Sea Hero Quest VR: helping neuroscientists design a new test for dementia.

London-based game design firm Glitchers worked with researchers from British and Swiss universities, as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s charities, to create Sea Hero Quest VR. Development of the free-to-download game, which is being released for Samsung’s Gear VR headset and Facebook Inc.’s Oculus Rift, was funded by German mobile carrier Deutsche Telekom AG.

As people play the game, anonymized data - including what actions they take and exactly where they look and for how long - is collected and stored on Deutsche Telekom’s servers in Germany. Players can also choose to provide the carrier with more detailed demographic data, such as information about their age, gender and location.

Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists will analyze the data to hopefully learn more about how humans develop spatial awareness and navigate new environments. Researchers believe subtle degradation in these skills may be an early warning sign of dementia and that information from the game could eventually lead to new tests to detect cognitive impairment earlier.

Currently there about 47 million people in the world living with dementia, a number that’s projected to rise to 130 million people by 2050 due to aging populations, according to the World Health Organization.

“Through things like brain scans we know that the disease process that underlie dementia actually starts 15 to 20 years before people are aware that they’ve got obvious symptoms,” said David Reynolds, chief science officer of Alzheimer’s Research UK, which was one of Deutsche Telekom’s partners in creating the game. He said that people aren’t aware of these changes because the brain is extremely resilient and able to find workarounds for damage as it gradually builds. Even when symptoms begin to be noticeable, people often lie to themselves about the reason they’ve started to engage in compensating behaviors - such as relying on Google Maps for directions on a familiar route. “What we really want to be able to do is diagnose people 15 to 20 years earlier than we are currently,” he said.

Virtual reality is increasingly being used therapeutically - to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder or alleviate chronic pain. And scientists who study the brain are already using VR-based experiments in labs, Maxwell Scott-Slade, the creative director at Glitchers, said. But the Sea Hero Quest game will let scientists gather data on a much greater scale. Deutsche Telekom said in a statement that just two minutes of virtual reality game play in the new Sea Hero Quest collects the equivalent of five hours of lab-based research.

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