Last Autumn, we launched GameChanger, a research project led by the University of Oxford. Dr James Pickett, our Head of Research, shares how these everyday handheld devices could revolutionise the field of dementia research.
Since we launched GameChanger last year, thousands and thousands of people have taken up the challenge and supported dementia research. They’ve downloaded the Mezurio app to their smartphone and played fun, free brain games for five minutes each day over a month.
Over 12,000 people have taken part so far from all four nations across the UK, aged from 18 to 90 years old.
Actor Kevin Whately, whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, is supporting GameChanger
GameChanger was launched to help us understand and eventually detect dementia earlier. But how will playing games on our smartphones help?
Dementia often begins with tiny changes to memory and thinking that can be difficult to detect with current tests.
Our brains change naturally with age. Telling apart which are normal changes and which are the very early signs of dementia is challenging.
The test we currently use to diagnose dementia often cannot make an accurate or fast diagnosis until the condition has progressed to a later stage.
However, we know through research that the brain begins to change 20 to 30 years before these tests can pick up dementia.
Spotting the earliest signs
GameChanger is trying to fill this gap - can we develop sensitive tests that can spot very early brain changes before the symptoms of dementia appear?
If we can spot the very earliest changes, people could take part in clinical trials earlier when new treatments might be more effective.
Today we don’t have any drugs that could stop the disease progressing but researchers across the globe are working tirelessly to develop them.
GameChanger aims to develop easy and accessible ways to assess changes in memory and brain function.
Researchers are working on other ways to make an accurate, fast diagnosis using brain scans, lumbar punctures, and blood tests, but all are more expensive and less available.
We don’t envisage people will ever be diagnosed just on the basis of how they use their smartphones, but in the future it could be used to spot people who might benefit from more tests.
A combination of different tests could then be used to confirm changes in the brain and whether they might lead to dementia.
What does GameChanger mean for dementia research?
Before we can start to use these brain games to pick up early changes of disease, we need to know how the general public who don’t have any signs of dementia perform.
By studying so many people in the country we aim to build a picture of what healthy ageing and ‘normal’ performance looks like.
Alongside the GameChanger study that thousands of people have support so far, there are several smaller studies asking groups of people that have been diagnosed with some form of memory problems to use the app.
The research team hope to compare these groups to identify the changes that might take place in the very earliest stages of dementia.
The project will also help researchers learn which tests give the most useful information and how best to analyse the vast amount of data they are collecting.
GameChanger is helping us answer more practical questions as well, about this type of research using apps. For example whether people are willing to do it and if it is engaging.
The bigger picture
As the information from GameChanger is analysed it will be written up and published in scientific papers and shared globally around the world. Alzheimer’s Society will also continue to share the findings.
Historically, testing memory involved people visiting clinics and undergoing psychological tests; these apps will never completely replace that but they allow thousands of people to take part in research at fraction of the time and cost.
This is a true acceleration towards us finding new treatments for dementia.