VR video game detects Alzheimer's risk before symptoms occur

An interactive video game can be used to identify genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's disease, according to a new study from researchers at the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School in the U.K.

Sea Hero Quest, which comes in both mobile app and virtual reality iterations, has been played by more than 4.3 million people around the world. It was developed in 2016 by German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom, Alzheimer's Research U.K., University College London, the University of East Anglia and British video game maker Glitchers as a tool for the study of dementia.

In the study, researchers examined gaming data from players between the ages of 50 and 75, and compared this benchmark data to that of players with the APOE4 gene, which is linked to increased Alzheimer's risk, but who were not yet showing any symptoms of the disease.

"We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse on spatial navigation tasks. They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals. This is really important because these are people with no memory problems," lead researcher Michael Hornberger, PhD, said in a statement. "It means that we can detect people who are at genetic risk of Alzheimer's based on how they play the game."

Beyond its ability to indicate Alzheimer's risk, the gaming data can also be used for further research into the disease. Every two minutes of gameplay equates to five hours of lab-based research, meaning scientists now have access to the equivalent of more than 1,700 years' worth of data to study.

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