My best friend’s father passed away a few years ago from complications due to early-onset dementia. He was diagnosed in his early 60s and lived in a progressive state of memory and motor function loss until his body finally gave out a few years later. He, like so many people who receive this devastating diagnosis, found out far too late for any treatment to be effective in staving off the symptoms. As a result, he ended up spending years in an almost vegetative state while nurses helped him carry out basic functions. If you’ve seen what I’m talking about, you know that’s no way to live.
However, such dismal circumstances may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new, fairly rudimentary video game. It’s called Sea Hero Quest, and it’s a memory game in which the lead player goes on a quest to retrieve his father’s memories — a plot most apropos for the game’s purpose.
It was created by Michael Hornberger, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., who lost his grandmother to dementia. As a scientist who’s also been personally affected by this disease, Hornberger is driven to improve diagnosis methods, which would in turn help doctors spot signs of it early on and thus treat it more effectively from the get-go.
Because of how it’s laid out, simply playing Sea Hero Quest for two minutes provides scientists with the equivalent of five hours’ worth of data. The way it works is it performs two main tests on the brain as you play it — one is memory-based, and one tests spacial awareness. Spacial awareness is one of the first things to go in patients with dementia (as well as Alzheimer’s), and as of yet, there are very few existing tests that look into it.
To successfully navigate the game, you have to memorize maps to get past checkpoints as well as get to certain positions and “fire a flare.” That second part tests your ability to situate yourself in space, but both aspects test the hippocampus, which is often where initial deterioration from dementia begins.
Hornberger, together with several other scientists, spent a year developing the app-based game with a company called Glitchers. Now that it’s up and running, every time someone plays it, data is sent back to the scientists about how that particular person navigates the course. Eventually they’ll have enough data to see what healthy brains do to get through the game and what a brain with the beginning signs of dementia does differently. Once they start seeing patterns in how people with dementia play the game, doctors will be able to use it as a diagnostic tool to test their patients.
While the game is by no means a cure for dementia or subsequently Alzheimer’s, if it’s approved as a diagnostic tool, it could help give those diagnosed a better chance at living a longer, better life with the disease. Most important, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of minutes. So if you have time to spare, why not download the game and help these brilliant minds fight back against the devastating effects of dementia? Your parents, friends and children will thank you one day.