How Citizen Scientists Could Help Find a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a cruel killer; one in three American seniors dies of AD or other dementias. Its impact extends far beyond those suffering from the disease itself, to families and caregivers. Over the years, there have been multiple theories as to its causes, but no one explanation seems to answer all of the key questions and so lead to a cure or treatments that can delay onset of the disease.
Enter Pietro Michelucci of the Human Computation Institute. He thinks that citizen science and crowdsourcing can speed up one promising research effort. The project is called “WeCureALZ” and is supported by the Bright Focus Foundation.
It’s been known for a while that reduced blood flow in the brain is associated with AD and other forms of dementia. New imaging techniques have enabled Cornell University biomedical engineering collaborators Chris Schaffer and Nozomi Nishimura to make important discoveries about the mechanisms that underlie this reduced blood flow.
There’s still lots of research to be done and that’s where citizen science plays a part. Data analysis is incredibly labor-intensive: a week’s worth of lab data may take up to one year of analysis using traditional techniques. That means it could take decades to find an effective treatment. Even state-of-the-art computer image recognition can’t detect the blockages. But gathering the data involves perceptual tasks that are relatively easy for humans. WeCureALZ aims to crowdsource the data analysis portion by engaging the general public through game-like activities, significantly speeding up the research.
This idea came to Pietro Michelucci when he saw that part of the analysis was very similar to the successful Stardust@Home project, in which “Dusters” use a virtual microscope to look for tracks of interstellar particles in foam-like “aerogel” flown aboard a NASA spacecraft.
But for the AD research, it’s also necessary to record the 3D structure of the blood vessels. That’s similar to what’s already being done successfully by the EyeWire project, which has turned the mapping of nerves in the retina into a puzzle-game that has had more than 250,000 individuals contributing.
In early March, The Crowd & The Cloud joined a meeting in Ithaca that brought together Andy Westphal and Robert Letteri from UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab and Stardust@Home, plus Amy Robinson from Eyewire, with neuroscientist Sebastian Seung and colleagues linked in by video from Princeton. Guy Eakin from Bright Focus shared his foundation’s hopes for the project, and his belief that public interest in contributing to Alzheimer’s research would be broad and deep.
If you are interested in doing an online activity that will directly contribute to Alzheimer’s research, you can pre-register at http://hcjournal.org/wecurealz/. We’ll be sharing more about the WeCureALZ project over the coming year and will highlight its progress in our 2017 series.