Video Games Could Contribute to Medical Diagnosis in Unexpected Ways

Video Games Could Contribute to Medical Diagnosis in Unexpected Ways
Elderly man with caretaker - Credit: ShuttersTock


Alzheimer’s is a terrible illness that can severely damage families or just make everyday life a struggle for people that have it. It’s also a very difficult disease to detect in its early stages, which would naturally be the best time to begin treatment. Medical tests don’t always get the job done when trying to determine who has early stages of Alzheimer’s, and yet, a video game might be the ideal solution in handling this problem.

A smartphone app, Sea Hero Quest, was used in a study to account for how gamers who do and don’t have genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s navigate its virtual environment. The game is simple enough; the player just has to use their fingers to navigate the virtual environment of the game, which consists primarily of mazes.

A thank you note on the Sea Hero Quest website states, “It has been a successful journey. Over 4.3 Million players played for over 117 years, providing scientists with more data than traditional research methods could have ever gathered. A monster big thank you to everyone who participated!”

The reason this game serves as such a great test is because spatial navigation issues are known to be a potent indicator of Alzheimer’s in its early stages. The app made this painfully aware with relatively little trouble; players with genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s were noted to take much less efficient paths throughout the game mazes. These inefficient movement patterns were identified in many players in the high genetic risk group, despite them not showing any symptoms of memory loss or other Alzheimer’s symptoms.

This data was even analyzed and contemplated with extremely high speed, thanks to the inherent nature of video games; nearly 4.3 million players got involved with Sea Hero Quest, aware that it was being used as a scientific study tool. This massive amount of players means the researchers received equally massive amounts of data in very little time.

This raises a very good point in regards to how video games could be used for mass studies of serious mental health issues. The fact is, you just can’t get as many ‘test subjects’ for lack of a better word, in a typical research setting. Developing an app that can be distributed for little cost, and then have it experienced by millions of people; it’s the largest possible net you can cast.

All you really need is a control group to compare the data to. In regards to Sea Hero Quest, the researchers singled out dates from 27,000 players aged fifty to seventy-five, which is the age group with the highest risk of developing Alzheimer’s within a decade. Then it was just a matter of comparing this benchmark to a group in a lab setting, half of which possessed the gene APOE4, which increases the danger of Alzheimer’s, and half that didn’t. This comparison revealed the aforementioned data; there is a clear correlation between those with genetically high risk for Alzheimer’s and the inefficient paths they take through spatial mazes.

While it is unlikely that video games will replace the official means of testing for Alzheimer’s anytime soon, it does reveal some startling and compelling reasons to consider them as a means of doing so regularly in the future.


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