‘Sea Hero Quest’ Gathers Data for Dementia Research

Being a little outside PewDiePie’s target audience, I completely missed the story of Sea Hero Quest — and it’s quite the story. The game was created by an international group of neuroscientists and researchers who study dementia, and it was made to help them crowdsource data and set benchmarks for human spatial navigation. Since visual–spatial impairments can be one of the first signs of dementia, the game may allow them to create tests to help doctors diagnose dementia early on.

The Washington Post has details about how the game works:

There are two major types of challenge in the current version of “Sea Hero Quest” (a third will be added in an update to the game scheduled for later this year), all based on real tools already used by brain researchers. Spiers calls them “experiments embedded within the game.” One challenge has players memorize maps then use them to make their way to checkpoints. This tests memory and visual perception. The second asks players to sail to a spot and then “fire a flare” back to their starting point. In the narrative of the game, this is to let their friends on shore know where they are. But for the researchers behind the scenes, it tests players’ ability to situate themselves in space.

Both these skills rely on the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure nestled in the middle of the brain. Hornberger remarked that this body part is measurably larger in London taxi drivers, who spend their whole careers learning how to know exactly where they are at all times. But the hippocampus is one of the first parts of the brain to deteriorate in patients with Alzheimer’s. That’s why so many find themselves misplacing things, or suddenly feeling disoriented in the middle of their own homes, long before they realize that something more insidious is going on inside their heads.

The information generated by the player is regularly sent back to the game’s creators. The more data they gather, the better they’ll be able to see how healthy brains handle the tasks in front of them, and discover the factors that might lead them astray.

On Apple devices, this is handled through ResearchKit. Sea Hero Quest prompts players to give consent to have their data collected, and offers them the chance to opt out if they’d rather just play the game. Otherwise, it also asks for a bit of demographic data — gender, age, education, even right- or left-handedness. All optional, but all useful for the research team.

Aslo helpful? PewDiePie. Deutsche Telekom, a company providing financial support for the project, enlisted the popular YouTuber’s help in spreading the word. The video that features Sea Hero Quest has nearly 5 million views. Many of those viewers made their way over to download and review the game — and hopefully contribute to the research program in the process.

Sea Hero Quest is available for free on the App Store and Google Play
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