Cascading through the brain

17 June 2014

Interview with

Jody Mason, University of Essex, Gaz Bushell, Fayju

It's been estimated that one in two children growing up today, will live past 85 andCascade so have a high risk of developing Alzheimer's. In order to educate students about the disease which could make a major impact on their lives, Jodie Mason from the University of Essex has teamed up with a games developer to make a video game which he hopes can communicate the complicated biochemical pathways involved. He explained more to Hannah Critchlow

Jody - So, we've created a game called Cascade and I've teamed up with a chap called Gaz Bushell from Fayju, a company that make computer games. The idea is that we want to educate really anybody who plays computer games, but of course a big demographic is young people, teenagers, who access these things. In Cascade, you actually step inside the brain of somebody with Alzheimer's disease so you can look around you, you can see the neurons, these brain cells all around you. You can see the amyloid precursor protein and the enzymes, these molecular scissors that come in and snip out that peptide segment, and you can watch that toxic self-association, that clumping to form these amyloid plaques. Because it has this sort of intergalactic feel, the only real artistic license that we've taken is that the player is controlling a spaceship. But a lot of the things that that spaceship does really mirrors the therapeutic intervention strategies that labs like my own at Essex and Chris's over in Cambridge and drugs companies are trying to do so, for example, to block those scissors and stop them cutting APP or if the beta-amyloid peptide does get produced to stop it from self-associating - so somehow detoxify it or stop it clumping.

Hannah - That's an innovative way of trying to switch people on to trying to understand this really complicated biological process that will probably affect them in the future. Well earlier this week, we took Cascade for a test drive. Kate Lamble accompanied Gaz Bushell, the games developer into Coleridge Community College to see what a class of 13-year-old students made of it.

Gaz - Cascade is a game where you fly around this infinite landscape effectively from brain cell to brain cell, fighting this malevolent force which is destroying everything in its path. And that force happens to be Alzheimer's disease.

Kate - Cascade is a game with a difference. Players control a spaceship which flies around a universe of brain cells, trying to protect them from attackers. As Gaz explained, it's all based on the actual science of Alzheimer's.

Gaz - Jody was explaining the amyloid cascade hypothesis to me in kind of layman's terms I guess. Being a programmer, the more that he would tell me about these aspects of the biochemistry involved in what was going on in Alzheimer's disease, the more I could see each of those individual elements would breakdown into a game component.

Student - Okay, so what am I aiming for?

Gaz - So, you see that giant orange thing?

Student - Yeah.

Gaz - That's a plaque. So you want to go to the source of that to try and stop it from forming.

Student - And you just fly around and you'll find the blue things.

Kate - So, the attackers represent the toxic sticky beta amyloid protein which can build up and disrupt the brain in Alzheimer's. Players break them down, keeping the brain cells healthy and delaying the onset of the disease just like drugs are trying to do in real patients at the moment.

Gaz - It's the same as most games. You're generally fighting something. We might as well make it so that you're fighting something very real. Through that process of engagement with it, you can understand more about the science but also, have an engaging and fun interactive experience.

Jacob - My name is Jacob and I'm 13 and I'm from Cambridge. I just had a go. It's stunning. It's out of this world, how good it is.

Kate - We tested the game on the newly released oculus system which is essentially a virtual reality headset that gives you a 3D immersive gaming experience. The novelty of the system might have contributed to some of the student's excitement.

Student - Does anyone want a go now?

Student - No, guys - it's in a line.

Kate - But the game is also being released for free on the 2D Ouya system. Then Gaz and Jody hope it will launch on major platforms like the PlayStation and Nintendo.

Student - The concept of the game looks pretty cool.

Student - It's like really cool.

Julian - I'm Julian. I'm 13 and I'm from Canada. It's just so breath-taking and I can imagine a lot of games being adapted to this.

Kate - By raising the public's awareness of Alzheimer's particularly with the young, Gaz and Jody hope that more can be achieved in terms of care, empathy, and funding. But does this approach actually work? The students we met certainly seem to be enthusiastic about gaming. But when asked what they learned, admittedly, only after a few minutes on the system, they didn't seem to have grasped what Alzheimer's was quite yet.

Student - Brain tissue in your head starts to deteriorate. I don't really know. I think I know some who has it.

Student - So, where's the gas cloud? There it is.

Kate - So, is it really an educational tool? I asked their teacher for her thoughts

Hillary - I'm Hilary Tunnicliffe. I'm a science teacher at Parkside Federation Academies on the Coleridge campus. I have rarely seen some of the year 8's as excited as they are about the game that you've just shown them. The virtual reality headset has inspired those children. I think anything like this which will inspire this sort of enthusiasm is a great teaching tool because they get interested in it. But actually, as the game is going on, they're beginning to work out what they're doing and then linking that with the stuff that I would then be teaching them. My family have had some personal experience of Alzheimer's. It's a very misunderstood condition and yet, it's going to affect more and more people with an ageing population. Anything that can be done to actually increase, not just the knowledge of it, but the awareness of it can only be a good thing.

If you want to have a go on Cascade, you can download it completely for free at www.ouya.tv/games.

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