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Katja Werz

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Research shows GDP and gender inequality within a nation is predictive of spatial navigation ability

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  • Analysis of the data collected by Deutsche Telekom’s mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’ has been published in the journal Current Biology
  • Results from the data analysis show that spatial navigation ability is strongly linked to the GDP of a country
  • Performance differences between genders are linked to the level of gender inequality 
  • Deutsche Telekom is launching a secure online portal to allow access and cloud based analysis to the data to aid future discoveries
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Analysis of the data collected by Deutsche Telekom’s mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’ helps fight dementia.

Results from the analysis of the data collected by the mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’ show that people in Nordic countries, North America, Australia, and New Zealand have the best spatial navigational abilities. 

And men performed better than women, but the gender gap narrowed in countries with greater gender equality, according to the study led by University College London (UCL) and The University of East Anglia (UEA), and published today in Current Biology.

The paper is the first scientific publication of findings from a collaborative project led by Deutsche Telekom, using the mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’, which is seeking to establish benchmarks in navigation abilities in order to help dementia research.

The research team has so far collected data from over 4 million people worldwide who have played the specially-designed mobile game. In the game, people play as a sea explorer completing a series of wayfinding tasks. The data collected by Sea Hero Quest is stored in a secure T-Systems server in Germany and all analysis by the UCL / UEA team is conducted on entirely anonymous data. 

Sea Hero Quest has been developed to aid understanding into spatial navigation, a key indicator in Alzheimer’s dementia. For the current study, researchers assessed data from over half a million people in 57 countries and restricted the data to those who had provided their age, gender and nationality, and were from countries with at least 500 participants. 

With so many people taking part, the team were able to reveal that spatial navigation ability across all countries declines steadily across adulthood. 

However, a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) also had a significant bearing, with Nordic countries among the highest performing along with those in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

“We’ve found that the environment you live in has an impact on your spatial navigation abilities,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Hugo Spiers. “We’re continuing to analyse the data and hope to gain a better understanding of why people in some countries perform better than others.”

While age most strongly correlated with navigational performance, researchers also found that country wealth, as measured by GDP (gross domestic product), correlated with performance. The researchers say this relationship may be due to associations with education standards, health and ability to travel. They focused on GDP for this analysis as it was a standard metric available for every country, but they will follow up with further comparisons of other factors.

Top performing countries including Finland, Denmark and Norway all share a national interest in orienteering, a sport relying on navigation, while the other top performing countries – New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Australia – all have high rates of driving, which may also boost navigation ability.

Comparing the country-level results to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, the researchers found a correlation between country-wide gender inequality and a larger male advantage in spatial navigation ability. The gender gap in game performance was also smaller in countries with greater economic wealth.

“Our findings suggest that sex differences in cognitive abilities are not fixed, but instead are influenced by cultural environments, such as the role of women in society,” said study co-author Dr Antoine Coutrot, who completed the research at UCL before moving to the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Gender equality has previously been found to eliminate differences in maths performance in school. The current study is the first to connect gender inequality to a more specific cognitive measure.

The researchers say that, in the future, an adapted version of the game, first launched by Deutsche Telekom in 2016, may be used as a screening tool for an early warning sign of dementia, as well as a means to monitor disease progress and as an outcome measure for clinical trials.

“Standard current tests for dementia don’t effectively tap into the primary initial symptom of being disoriented in space, so we are trying to find an easy way of measuring that, efficiently validated by crowd-sourcing our data,” said Dr Spiers.

“It’s promising to see that the effect of nationality is relatively small, as it suggests that the game could be used as a relatively universal test for spatial navigation abilities,” said co-lead author Professor Michael Hornberger (The University of East Anglia).

From September 2018, Deutsche Telekom will be providing access to this unprecedented data set in order to aid future discoveries, not only in dementia but across the wider field of Neuroscience research. Access will be granted via a bespoke, secure web portal, allowing cloud based analysis of the data. It is facilitated by T-Systems.

“We are excited to announce that we will be making this unique data set accessible to researchers across the world to continue to support studies of this kind.” said Deutsche Telekom Chief Brand Officer, Hans-Christian Schwingen. “Sea Hero Quest demonstrates the power of mobile technology in helping to collect important data at scale, advancing research into some of the most pressing healthcare issues of our time.”

The study was conducted by researchers at University College London, The University of East Anglia, McGill University, Bournemouth University, ETH Zurich and Northumbria University and funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. 

Read the published journal in Current Biology here.

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