Katja Kunicke

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Deutsche Telekom facilitates important progress in dementia research

  • Baseline study using data from the Sea Hero Quest game identifies key findings for dementia research 
  • Material wealth and gender inequality are predictive of spatial navigation ability
  • Deutsche Telekom opening cloud-based big data analytics up to scientists all over the world 
Analyse der Spielerdaten aus dem mobilen Spiel “Sea Hero Quest” liefert wertvolle Erkenntnisse zur räumlichen Orientierung.

Analysis of the data collected by Deutsche Telekom’s mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’ has been published in the journal Current Biology.

With the mobile game Sea Hero Quest, Deutsche Telekom is facilitating important progress in global dementia research. This is indicated in a recent study by University College London (UCL) and the University of East Anglia (UEA) that was published today in the journal Current Biology. It is the first scientific publication on findings from Deutsche Telekom's Game for Good initiative. Standardized data on spatial orientation was gathered with the aid of a mobile game, Sea Hero Quest, which has been downloaded over four million times worldwide since its release in May 2016. 

To compile the study, the scientists drew on data from more than half a million people from 57 countries. They analyzed anonymized data from players from countries with at least 500 participants who voluntarily provided their age, gender, and nationality information. 

This baseline study yielded the following important findings:

  • There is strong correlation between spatial navigation abilities and a country's material wealth, measured by GDP: people in Nordic countries, North America, Australia, and New Zealand achieved the best results in the game, whereas residents of India, Egypt, and Iraq did more poorly. 
  • Men performed better than women on average, but the gender gap narrowed in countries with greater gender equality. 
  •  Spatial orientation begins to deteriorate from early adulthood and continues to do so throughout our lives.

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

Measurement methods for early diagnosis

The study's authors also intend to use the crowdsourcing data collected by Deutsche Telekom to develop simple, globally applicable measurement methods for medicine. Currently used tests for dementia are not effective at detecting the earliest symptoms of spatial disorientation. As such, the scientists plan to publish an adapted version of Sea Hero Quest as a diagnostic screening instrument. They also believe the game could be useful for monitoring the progression of the disease in individuals and serve as a useful tool for comparing the results of clinical trials.

Deutsche Telekom is now making the anonymized data available to other scientists for research purposes. With this step, the company hopes to aid further discoveries beyond dementia, across the wider field of neuroscience research. Access to the data will be provided through a custom-developed, secure web portal that supports cloud-based big data analytics. All data will be transferred securely and anonymously through the T-Systems' AppAgile platform. The digital storage in the cloud serves as the foundation for recording, classifying, and analyzing the complex datasets. 

"Sea Hero Quest once again demonstrates the power of digital applications in helping to collect important data at scale," said Hans-Christian Schwingen, Deutsche Telekom Chief Brand Officer. "Our initiative makes it possible for scientists around the world to use the anonymous data for their valuable research work. With this step, we hope to advance research in some of the most pressing healthcare issues of our time." Deutsche Telekom's brand message, "Life is for sharing", embodies the driver of the initiative: through progress in dementia research, giving patients the ability to share their experiences and memories with friends and family for as long as possible. 

Prof. Dr. Stephan A. Brandt, Assistant Director of the Department of Neurology at Charité Berlin, believes that the Deutsche Telekom-initiated project is generating huge value for science: "The establishment of standardized international baseline data on spatial orientation is hugely important to dementia research. The data collected through the Sea Hero Quest app is helping scientists better understand the links between aging and dementia, a key prerequisite for developing procedures for diagnostics and prevention. Deutsche Telekom's initiative is an excellent example of how cloud applications can be put to good use for medical progress."

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 was funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. 

Sea Hero Quest was designed by the English game developer Glitchers. Players have to perform a series of orientation and navigation exercises on their smartphones or tablet PCs. The players take on the role of sailors who have to constantly adjust their orientation in a variety of scenarios. People who have a good sense of direction can solve the given tasks more quickly.

Classifying the results

The scientists believe that the correlation between per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and performance could 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. The scientists have proposed one possible explanation for the better performance of people in some countries: In less densely populated countries like Finland, Denmark, and Norway or New Zealand, Canada and the United States people tend to travel long distances. To do so god spatial navigation capabilities are required. 

A comparison of the country-level results with the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index revealed a larger female disadvantage in spatial navigation ability in countries that have greater country-wide gender inequality. As the scientists see it, the findings suggest that gender differences in cognitive capabilities are not fixed. Instead, they are influenced by cultural environments, such as the role of women in society.

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