CNN – Only a few minutes of playing a particular video game could help find the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease in a way that medical tests can not do, researchers have found.
A new study used a Sea Hero Quest smartphone app to watch as players with and without genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's navigate the virtual world, with their thumbs moving a small boat through a series of maritime labyrinths.
This type of testing was the key because "spatial navigation emerges as a critical factor in the detection of preclinical Alzheimer's disease," said the authors of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Players with a high genetic risk for Alzheimer's have found less efficient ways to get checkpoints in the game, researchers found. In addition, the movement patterns have been identified among the actors of the genetic risk pool who have not shown any other memory problems.
Through the online polling network, scientists were able to draw their conclusions as warp speed. They complied with five hours of lab testing every two minutes of play time, they said, with huge amounts of data available about each player every second.
The results offer far-reaching possibilities. Researcher Gillian Coughlan supported the development of more personalized measures for future diagnostic and drug treatment programs.
"The Biggest Dementia Study in History"
The researchers wanted to test the space navigation hypothesis in a novel way: they founded Sea Hero Quest and engaged casual gamers around the world.
To clarify the scientific purposes, developers focused on Apple and Android users in the UK, letting them decide whether researchers should collect data on how they are doing this maneuvered through the virtual world of the game. In the end, it was 4.3 million players who set the stage for the "biggest dementia study in history".
The researchers then found data from more than 27,000 players between the ages of 50 and 75 ̵
Finally, they compared these results with the performance of 60 people in the laboratory: 31 with the APOE4 gene, which increases Alzheimer's risk, and 29 without Alzheimer's.
The cross-check showed a clear difference in the patterns of movement between those in the risk pool – who had opted for less efficient paths – and the other actors, according to the researchers.
Memory tests are still the standard
Focusing on navigation as an early hallmark of Alzheimer's, the Sea Hero Quest test differed from the usual memory and cognition tests in clinics, the researchers said.
"Current dia Dementia disease relies heavily on memory symptoms that we know to occur now when the disease is fairly advanced," senior researcher Michael Hornberger said in a press release. "Instead, new evidence shows that subtle spatial navigation and consciousness deficits can precede memory symptoms by many years."
In fact, decreasing spatial awareness and navigation skills are often the first clear signs that dementia affects a person's life. said Hilary Evans, head of Alzheimer's Research UK, who worked with the researchers.
Evans often hears heartbreaking stories about "people with dementia who get lost and can not find a way home," she said in a statement.  Sea Hero Quest was developed as a partnership between researchers at University College London, the University of East Anglia, and Alzheimer's Research UK. It was created by app developer Glitchers and funded by Deutsche Telekom.
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