The symptoms of dementia will be rigorously tested in a virtual reality (VR) computer game in a new way of diagnosing the neurodegenerative disease.
It will form part of the world’s largest dementia research experiment, with millions of people expected to play.
The scientists said the move to virtual reality will allow them to investigate the disease in greater detail.
The game, Sea Hero Quest VR, will put the user in control of a boat, in which he or she must navigate through complex waterways, desert islands, and oceans.
Anonymous data will be collected from users while players to be assessed by neuroscientists.
Max Scott-Slade, one of the game’s developers, said: “It’s interesting to try to make something that’s normally quite a boring subject matter, and lab-based, and bring it to the public and make it as fun as possible.
“The value for us is to create this much richer dataset, we’re capturing 15 times more data from the VR version because we’re separating out where the head looks and where the boat’s moving.”
Ultimately, the game will test one of the first indicators of dementia – one’s ability to navigate.
Initial tests, which were conducted using a pre-virtual reality version of the game, showed that someone’s sense of direction declined consistently after their teenage years.
The study also found that men have a slightly better sense of direction than women, while people in the Nordic regions perform better than the rest of the world.
However, they could not explain how or why.
Prof Christophe Hoelscher, chairman of cognitive science at ETH Zurich, said: “No project ever has collected data from 3 million people of real interactions in this depth.
“That allows us to do a number of analyses that you would never be able to do with classical studies.”
Dr David Reynolds, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “What we really want to be doing is identifying people with dementia 10 or 15 years earlier than we do at the moment.
“A game like Sea Hero Quest and understanding how we navigate will help us get to that much earlier diagnosis.”