• Fighting Dementia with Sea Hero Quest

    shq-logoAs we move around in the world we develop a sense of how to get from A to B. This relies heavily on the hippocampus, a brain structure nestled deep within each of the temporal lobes, responsible for many functions vital to cognition such as memory and navigation. This is the brain structure famed for becoming physically larger as a result of all the practice driving around London that the drivers of London’s famous Black Cabs have to accrue before they can pass “The Knowledge.” Whilst their memory for the 25,000 roads and 20,000 major landmarks that enable them to instantly reel off the route they’d take to get from one place to another is extraordinary, for the 33% of those born in 2015 will live long enough to develop dementia at some point in their lives this situation is reversed. Difficulties with navigation, even familiar routes between places visited many times before, is one of the problems in daily life that can herald the approach of full-blown dementia. Understanding the normal trajectory of changes in navigational ability over the lifetime of a health brain is a vital first step. With or without dementia our abilities to memories complex routes becomes slowly but surely compromised by the normal processes of age-related cognitive decline. We need to know what is normal for each age group before we could be in a position to use a steeper than normal decline in navigational ability as an early warning signal, ideally before any memory deficits have had a chance to rear their ugly heads. As our understanding of the metabolic processes that lead to various forms of dementia improve, this early warning could prove to be a vital mechanism in triggering prophylactic treatments early enough to slow down disease progression.

    memoriseHugo Spiers, a memory researcher and neuroscientist at University College London, launched a smartphone game in 2016 called Sea Hero Quest, which aims to do just this. Over 2.5 million people have played this surprisingly fun, engaging and challenging game so far, generating the equivalent of an astonishing 9,400 years worth of lab data. The game involves memorising a map of waterways around which a series of numbered buoys have been distributed. Once you’ve planned the journey you’re going to make and tucked it away in your working memory, the map is then taken  away and your job is then to steer your little fishing boat (increasingly customisable as you progress through the game) by tapping the left or right side of the touch screen. The terrain varies from idyllic sandy paradises to rainy, foggy, bumpy rides across perpetually undulating swell. Thanks to the funding from Deutsche Telekom and Glitchers – the tech-gurus who actually created the game – the graphics are beautifully rendered, the gameplay is smooth and unlike most games designed to answer important scientific questions, every aspect of the user experience is highly polished. As was the delivery of the first results announced at SfN 2016 and summarised below by the man himself…

     

     

    buoyPersonally I was surprised by how hard some of the levels were. I play a lot of brain training games (e.g. PEAK Review, BRAIN AGE 2 Review ), just to keep myself up to date on the latest offerings, and am now accustomed to finding myself able to get maximal scores on most categories of games pretty quickly through daily play. Not Sea Hero Quest. Once I got past the easier earlier levels, I often found myself getting lost in the mist, or going round and round in circles having forgotten how to get from buoy 3 to buoy 4. As a consequence, not only did I help scientists like Hugo Spiers and colleagues from the University of East Anglia and Alzheimers Research UK to generate data (anonymously, you only have to give your age) but I also got an insight into what the future might have in store for me should I become one of the unfortunate 1 in 3 that get clobbered by dementia in my post-retirement years. As you progress from level to level you periodically get to chase down one of a large variety of sea monsters. Having dodged innumerable obstacles along the way the monster in question eventually leaps out of the water at you and your task, is to resist the temptation to hit the button on your camera to take a photo of the rare and exotic sea beast in question, until the very last second when the captured image is at its most aesthetically pleasing.

    Overall, I found playing this game great fun, very challenging at times and doubly satisfying knowing that it would, in some small but meaningful way, help science to get some much needed answers about how the human brain keeps track of where it is and where it’s going in health, so we can better understand when this system breaks down in disease.

    img_1517I would just like to take a moment to applaud @HugoSpiers and collaborators for finding a way to genuinely enable people to #gameforgood. Hats off to you all… your Cannes Lion was thoroughly well deserved!

    In addition to these monthly blogs you can get daily brain tweets about other amazing developments in the world of neuroscience by following me on Twitter (@DrJackLewis). And for a fortnightly appraisal of the latest quirkly stories from the wonderful world of science on general there’s always the totally free Geek Chic Weird Science podcast available from iTunes, Podbay, Libsyn and many others.

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  • New Hope for Paralysis Recovery by Dr Jack Lewis

    As 2014 draws to a close my thoughts have recently turned to pondering the greatest neuroscience discoveries of the year. For me I’ve been struck by several developments in an area of biomedical science that during most of my lifetime has been considered beyond the powers of medical therapy to provide a decent remedy.

     

    christopherreeveEver since Christopher Reeve (the actor who played Superman in the much loved films of the late 70’s and 80’s) became paralysed from the neck down during an equestrian accident in 1995, the plight of people who suffer traumatic spinal damage has seemed utterly futile; despite the huge amounts of money various benefactors have ploughed into research. However this year we have seen huge leaps in scientific advancement enabling previously wheelchair-bound people to stand up and take some small but important steps forward under their own volition.

     

    A paralysed person kicked off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil during the opening ceremony using an EEG-controlled robotic exoskeleton. But given that the person in question had to be carried onto the pitch on a golf buggy, as opposed to rising up out of their wheelchair as promised, that feat should only really be considered a drop in the ocean compared to the much more remarkable progress in paralysis rehabilitation we’ve seen over the course of 2014.

     

    DrJackNewsroundAt the beginning of the year I was invited to make an appearance on “Newsround” – the Children’s BBC channel’s daily news show – to explain a totally unexpected and extraordinary breakthrough in rehabilitation research with paralysed army veterans in the USA. A chip was surgically inserted into their spinal cord, below the sites of damage, to apply weak currents of electricity in an effort to reinvigorate the involuntary spinal reflexes that enable us to maintain our balance whilst standing (no input from the brain necessary).

    This unexpected development occurred when, after a few weeks of further intensive rehabilitation exercises, several people regained voluntary movement of their legs for the first time in 2-4 years. Can you imagine how good that must have felt for the people in question? As someone who personally spent three weeks of 2014 with an almost completely paralysed arm after complication during routine surgery, it brings tears to my eyes to think how amazing it must have been to have control over legs that had previously seemed utterly useless for so many long months. It seems that the current injected by the chip had unexpectedly boosted signal strength across the area of damaged spinal cord sufficiently for the electrical messages (action potentials) to get all the way down to the leg muscles.

     

    Geoff RaismanIn 2004 whilst I was doing my PhD at University College London, I attended a talk by Prof Geoff Raisman, now chair of Neural Regeneration at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square. He presented brand new data that he was clearly extremely excited about in which he showed data that clearly depicted new neuronal growth across the site of a spinal lesion. I cannot remember whether the experiment involved rodents or non-human primates but he made it clear that it would be many years before this pioneering research could ever be used to help paralysed humans. Today, in 2014, this dream is a reality.

     

    OlfactoryCellsInjectedDarek Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down for several years after a knife attack that severed his spinal cord. The 8mm gap that prevented messages sent from his brain to reach the muscles of his leg, penis and bladder were bridged using stem cells extracted from his brain. Mr Fidyka first underwent surgery to remove one of his two olfactory bulbs – the antennae like structures that extend forwards from the brain’s limbic system, running above each nasal cavity and extending smell receptors across the skull and into the nasal epithelium. Because the olfactory receptors come into contact with so many volatile compounds (just think of how potent the gases are that get into your nostrils when you’re downwind of a bonfire) a fair amount of damage happens to these brain cells and so they must be constantly replenished. This means that the olfactory bulbs / neurons of the nasal epithelium are a great source of stem cells.

     

    Darek Fidyka walks with the aid of leg-braces and a walking frameOnce sufficient numbers of Olfactory Ensheathing Cells (OECs) had been cultured and several million of them injected into the gap in his spinal cord a period of intensive rehabilitation exercises got underway. 6 hours per day 5 days per week. A few no-doubt-frustrating weeks later he graduated from walking with the assistance of parallel bars in the rehabilitation gym, to walking with a frame outside the hospital in Wroclaw, Poland where the surgery took place. Perhaps as important he regained some bladder control and sexual function. An incredible achievement for Mr Fidyka, but an absolutely triumph for Prof Raisman and the hundreds of people that have contributed to the groundwork that led to this unbelievable feat of brilliance.

     

    This story was covered in episode 10 of the podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science – co-presented by yours truly and the gorgeous Lliana Bird – which you can subscribe to on iTunes, absolutely free of charge, by clicking here.

     

    For daily news on the latest advances in neuroscience research you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here.

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