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Snakes and ladders for a healthy brain

Researchers from the University of Southampton pose in front of the snakes and ladders game

Through our BSI Communication and Engagement Grant scheme, we supported the creation of a ‘snakes and ladders’ game to strengthen understanding of the public around risk factors linked to the likelihood of dementia. In this article, you'll hear from one of the organisers, Professor Jessica Teeling, on the evidence in this area and how it was used to design this engaging game for the public.

Almost one million people in the United Kingdom are living with dementia, with the majority due to Alzheimer’s disease. As a person gets older, their risk of developing dementia increases significantly. A recent study showed evidence that an unhealthy lifestyle may also contribute to the likelihood of dementia. The study found that 40% of dementia cases may be due to lifestyle choice and exposure to ‘modifiable’ risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, poor diet and inactivity. Many of these risk factors involve activation of our immune system which is consistent with our growing knowledge of the links between inflammation and dementia. 

With the phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ in mind, we applied for a BSI Communication and Engagement Grant from the British Society for Immunology to generate a giant ‘snakes and ladders’ game, where players learn about lifestyle choices that prevent (ladder) or increase (snake) the risk of dementia.

Game time!

Giant, bouncy, foam dice are used to run though the ‘life course’ to create an interactive fun element. If a player ends up on a ladder they are rewarded and move up the board, but if a player ends up on a snake, they drop down. The game host explains why certain risk factors will accelerate the development of dementia, and particularly the role of the immune system in this process. At the end of the game, each player receives a take-home postcard version, containing further information and links to websites of the British Society for Immunology and Alzheimer’s Research UK who co-funded our game.

Contributing to healthier brains

Evaluation indicates that 80% of participants change their perception of risk after playing the game, showing evidence that this knowledge exchange activity has a positive societal impact. Most surprising risk-factors were not ‘flossing teeth’ and hearing loss, both topics of active dementia research at the University of Southampton. We discovered that our game is suitable for young and old and by participating in Science & Humanities festivals, dementia café/training events and a school STEM Day, we reached over 5,000 members of the public. Participation at these local events and raising awareness of dementia risk factors significantly enhanced the engagement with our local community and will hopefully contribute to healthier communities and healthier brains.

The team that made this happen

The game was designed by myself and Dr Sofia Michopoulou from the University of Southampton and University Hospital of Southampton. We have a background in immunology and neuroscience and share the ambition to improve the lives of people with dementia by developing methods and accuracy of diagnosis and prognosis of dementia. The project is supported by Dr Jay Amin, who is a consultant in Older People's Mental Health and Dr Vanissa Wanick from the Winchester School of Art. Our project is further supported by game designer/artist Venezia Georgieva, computer expert Dr James Stallwood and Neuroscience Master students from the University of Southampton. This project would not have been possible without the support from the British Society for Immunology and their Communication and Engagement Grant. Apply for yours today!

Is this it for the game?

Not if you ask us! We attracted a further £15,000 to work with artists and computer game designers to generate an electronic ‘trivia’ version of the game. Watch this space for new special editions to promote healthy brains for all communities.


Professor Jessica Teeling, University of Southampton
With thanks to Dr Sofia Michopoulou and everyone else involved.

BSI Communication and Engagement Grant 

This grant scheme funds projects to spark interest in and strengthen understanding of immunology, and helps to build your engagement skills. The next deadline is 1 June 2024. Find out more and apply here