As 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.
Hugo 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…
Personally 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.
I 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.