Smartphone game Sea Hero Quest seeks to identify early signs of Alzheimer's and dementia

Sea Hero Quest might appear to be a simple and fun smartphone game which requires you to navigate a small boat through various mazes, but its mission is far more complex and aims to solve a much bigger problem.

The game was developed in 2016 to collect data for a study to help determine early signs of dementia and Alzheimer's. Scientists from University College London, Deutsche Telekom and the University of East Anglia teamed up to develop what they call the "largest crowd-sourced database on human spatial navigation," according to Alzheimer's Research UK.

"No one's ever survived dementia. There are no treatments that tackle the disease itself," said Hilary Evans, CEO of Alzheimer's Research UK on the apps introduction video.

Alzheimers Research UK says that by playing the game, users will assist their scientists in understanding how brains navigate space. "The pioneering project will mean that any one of the thousands of people who try the free Sea Hero Quest game can play their own part in an innovative piece of dementia science," the Alzheimer's Research UK team says on its website.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the game, Sea Hero Quest, proved to be a credible source of data when it came to finding some of the most early signs of Alzheimer's.

On the game's website, it says that the loss of navigational skills is one of the first symptoms of dementia. The game is a navigation-based adventure that sends data back to researchers in order to better understand human spatial navigation.

The game monitors how players with both a high and low genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's based on genetic and demographic risk factors perform. These factors included sex, age and "educational attainment."

Players are tasked with navigating through the virtual oceanic world, using their thumbs to move a boat through a series of mazes.

Researchers found that players with a high risk of the disease had a harder time navigating through the game.

Prof. Michael Hornberger, a dementia science teacher at the University of East Anglia, said in a video about the game that "the data from the game creates a global benchmark of spatial navigation in humans."

The game was ideal for the study's research because spatial navigation is a key factor in early detection of the progressive disease, according to researchers.

"We report that assessment of navigational behavior using the Sea Hero Quest app provides a means of discriminating healthy aging from genetically at-risk individuals of Alzheimer's disease," researchers from the study said.

While the game hopes to identify early signs of dementia, it clearly states on its website that "even if you're not a great navigator, it doesn't mean you're more likely to get dementia."