Help defeat dementia using only your thumb

Tim Parry

We’ve blogged before about how attitudes towards dementia, and our scientific understanding, have been perhaps a generation behind other health areas, like cancer or heart disease. What we’re working on at Alzheimer’s Research UK is how to close the gap, and to do it in far less time than a generation, before the impact of dementia overtakes us.

Everything we do at the charity – whether that’s our innovative research programmes, or our campaign work – considers how we can do things differently to reach our ambitions and create change more quickly. If there’s one health issue that demands some different thinking from all of us, it’s dementia.

So when we were approached by telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom with an idea around developing a game to encourage phone users around the world to get involved in research, it felt like an innovative bit of thinking that attracted us.


A few months on, we’ve ended up with the fantastic Sea Hero Quest, a smartphone game that re-writes the rules on how we go about dementia research. Colourful, fun and addictive – as any good mobile game should be – Sea Hero Quest is a maze game that appeals to casual gamer in all of us. It also carries a poignant story behind the gameplay, as told by this beautiful introductory animation.

When playing, the game monitors several times a second how we navigate the mazes, reference landmarks and utilise our sense of direction. This builds a picture for the scientists at a population level of what normal navigation looks like across the ages. All the data is anonymously submitted, and with the sheer number of people who we hope will play the game, we can generate the largest crowd-sourced database of its kind, and have some fun while we do it. We’re helping fund the analysis of the data which will take place at UCL.

How this links to dementia relates again to our use of spatial navigation which, for people with dementia, can be compromised or lost quite early on in the condition. However, we don’t yet know enough about healthy navigational abilities to be able to develop with enough sensitivity a test to reliably detect problems with these abilities in dementia. Sea Hero Quest could help solve this in double quick time.

As players move around the game, their position is relayed securely and anonymously back to scientists. This is analysed using a heat map, which shows navigational decision-making. This gives scientists the data needed to see how everyone navigates through the various levels.

As players move around the game, their position is relayed securely and anonymously back to scientists. This is analysed using a heat map, which shows navigational decision-making. This gives scientists the data needed to see how everyone navigates through the various levels.

There is a bigger picture around the value of early detection in dementia. We know that treatments we’re working hard to deliver in the coming years are almost certainly going to be more effective when people with dementia can access them as early as possible. It’s therefore imperative we focus on early disease detection in tandem with treatment development – the two lean on each other heavily for success.

The other benefit that Sea Hero Quest’s approach brings is the enormous saving on how this kind of research is conventionally delivered, and why the largest study of its kind to date featured fewer than 600 people. In order to undertake a maze test to measure navigational abilities, I would typically have to spot a study recruitment advert, travel to a test centre, fill in forms about myself and take the navigational test, all assisted by scientists and facilitators. It would be enjoyable, but also time-consuming, costly and potentially difficult to recruit for. Playing Sea Hero Quest for a couple of minutes on the bus could achieve the same outcome, and it’s free for the player and super quick. You’ll want to play for longer than a couple of minutes too.

The idea of a “Citizen Science” game is not new, but previous efforts in this area have perhaps fallen victim of being fun games with little scientific utility, or powerful games for research that relatively few people played. We hope Sea Hero Quest finds the sweet spot that balances the need for useful data with the appeal of a game worth playing. Download it, enjoy the experience and know that you’re doing your little bit for the research effort. It really is a chance to #gameforgood.


15 Responses to Help defeat dementia using only your thumb

  1. Avatar
    Karlo 9 May 2016 at 7:42 am #


    What would happen if I let my grandmother, with certified diagnosis of dementia, play the Sea Hero Quest ?


  2. ARUK Blog Editor
    ARUK Blog Editor 9 May 2016 at 11:23 am #

    Sea Hero Quest has been developed for anyone and everyone to play as it is designed to help us understand navigational abilities at a mass scale, or “population” level. Although not designed specifically for people with dementia, it doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t play if they are able and want to have a go.

  3. Avatar
    Nathan 10 May 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    Very intriguing concept! Are you able to share some literature/data on the the science behind the premise?

    Best regards

  4. Avatar
    Yolande 17 May 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    I’ve been playing for a couple of weeks, but my tablet freezes mid game. Is this a common complaint or is it my tablet?

  5. Avatar
    Philip Seymour 18 May 2016 at 7:03 pm #

    trying so hard to get SEA HERO, im just on a loop

    • ARUK Editor
      ARUK Editor 19 May 2016 at 7:53 am #

      Hi Phillip

      Do email us if you’re having issues with Sea Hero Quest.

      If you’re experiencing a bug, we can report any issues. You can contact us on enquiries@alzheimersresearchuk.org.

      ARUK Digital Team

  6. Avatar
    Frank beard 19 November 2016 at 6:49 pm #

    would love to play the game but where are the instructions. I am with it so God help someone who is not game minded.

    • ARUK Blog Editor
      ARUK Blog Editor 21 November 2016 at 9:01 am #

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for the feedback. We tried to ensure the game is as accessible as possible to all.

      After you’ve downloaded the app (for free from the Android or Apple app stores), the opening level of the game acts as a tutorial to help you understand how to control your boat and the principles of the game. If you’re having difficulties, give us a call and we can help you make the most of it.

      Why not join 2.4 million other people in taking part?

      ARUK Blog Editor

  7. Avatar
    Barbara 29 November 2016 at 2:32 pm #

    I am having difficulty steering the boat through the rocks finding it very frustrating…

  8. Avatar
    Barbara 30 November 2016 at 11:18 am #

    Will have to give up as using thumb doesn’t make any difference it is a pity as I was enjoying but can’t understand why the boat is impossible to steer. Can anyone help?

    • ARUK Blog Editor
      ARUK Blog Editor 30 November 2016 at 2:50 pm #

      Sorry to hear that you’re having problems steering, Barbara. We find the best way to manoeuvre the boat is to move it forward and then adjust its direction.

      To go forward, put your thumb (or your index finger works just as well) and swipe upwards towards the top of the phone. Then put your thumb or finger back on the boat and gently swipe sideways to steer in that direction. If you find yourself stuck against the shore, continually swipe in one direction to spin the boat back in the direction you want to you.

      If you’d like more help, please do drop us an email at enquiries@alzheimersresearchuk.org

  9. Avatar
    Anne 24 March 2017 at 9:04 am #

    Memorising the route is the easy bit steering, stopping and starting the boat is far too difficult. The instruction are non existent and no easily accessible “help” feature. My boat is now stalled and the only thing it will do is turn round! No fun at all. Going to uninstall it.

  10. Avatar
    A de glanville 9 December 2017 at 7:53 am #

    What have welearnt so far from the research? Is there still a team working on the results of this game? Are you stilleven te recruiter more players?

    • ARUK Blog Editor
      ARUK Blog Editor 12 December 2017 at 10:17 am #


      The first findings from this pioneering study found that our spatial navigation abilities begin to decline from early adulthood (sample analysis began at 19) and that they continue on this trajectory across the lifespan. Those aged 19 were 74% likely to accurately hit a target during the game, whereas this figure had reduced to 46% amongst those aged 75. This progression is in stark contrast to previous smaller scale studies of around 100 people, which had suggested such a decline to be expected in later life. When analysing completion of the ‘flare levels’ (path integration ability which assesses the ability to point back to the start of a novel route) in the game, men and women appear to have employed different spatial navigation strategies to complete the level. Key differences across the nations have also been found with several of the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark) appearing to have particularly noteworthy spatial navigation capabilities across the set of 193 nations of the world contributing to the sample.Understanding these points of difference is significant as it ensures such factors are accounted for during diagnosis and treatment, potentially leading to greater accuracy and efficacy. Further analysis of the data is still to be undertaken and is expected to take two years to complete. Later analyses of the research will also assess six other demographics tracked by the game including education level, handedness, self rated spatial navigation ability, the geographical environments in which players grew up, hours of sleep and amount of time spent travelling per day. The game continues to be available for free download from the App Store and Google Play. And the data it produces are still being provided to participating scientists – and, thus, to the dementia research community.

      You can read more here: http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/first-data-sea-hero-quest-game-revealed

  11. Avatar
    A de glanville 9 December 2017 at 7:54 am #

    Are you still trying to recruit more players?

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