A free mobile game that tests players' spatial navigation skills also doubles as the largest dementia research ever, with more than 2 million people reported to have downloaded the app.
Known as Sea Hero Quest, the game was launched in May this year and was developed through a collaboration between game designer Glitchers, telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom, Alzheimer's Research UK and many other scientists.
The mobile game has helped researchers harness invaluable data from 2.4 million players, contributing to an equivalent of 9,400 years of lab-based research.
"This is the only study of its kind, on this scale, to date," said Dr. Hugo Spiers, one of the researchers of the report.
Spatial Navigation Awareness
Spatial navigation awareness is one of the first few abilities severely affected by dementia. In fact, getting lost and being unable to recognize directions is one of the symptoms of the debilitating disease.
Now, in the new research, players are required to navigate a boat through waters in several differently themed areas over 75 levels, collecting certain items along the way.
Players provide their age and gender, allowing researchers to monitor their performance against other players.
Initial findings of the study reveal differences in spatial navigation strategies used by women and men, as well as spatial navigation decline that begin during early adulthood.
For instance, users aged 19, which were the youngest in the research, exhibited a 74 percent chance of accurately hitting a target during the game. On the other hand, users aged 75, which were the oldest, only had a 46 percent chance of doing so.
This decline in spatial navigation awareness seemed to contradict past studies, which are usually based on less than 100 people, that suggest cognitive function does not decline later in life.
Diagnostic Test For Dementia
Scientists hope to use the records from the research to create the world's first benchmark for spatial navigation and to develop the mobile game into an initial diagnostic test for the disease.
Spiers, who is an expert from the University College London, said the findings' accuracy exceeds those of previous studies on the area, given the large number of participants. He said the findings have enormous potential to support developments in dementia research.
Furthermore, Spiers believes being able to diagnose and detect signs of dementia at the early stages would become a significant milestone.
The findings of the study were presented at the Neuroscience 2016 conference in San Diego, California. In the next two years, researchers plan to carry out more analysis of the data they have gathered.