How Citizen Scientists Could Help Find a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease

This is what a start-up meeting looks like: puzzling over different visual approaches to posting images online, and trying to develop the most user-friendly interface for the beta-testers who’ll soon be asked to analyze data. Guy Eakin, bottom right, represented the Bright Focus Foundation, which has made Alzheimer’s one of its main targets. He’s a firm believer that enlisting citizen science can advance not just medical research but also public awareness and education about the 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.

WeCureALZ project lead, Pietro Michelucci, had been working for more than a year to bring this team together for their first in-person brainstorming.

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.

L: Nozomi Nishimura of Cornell’s innovative bioengineering lab, studies blockages in brain blood vessels that may be contributing to Alzheimer’s. R: Nozomi’s partner Chris Schaffer described his lab’s research to the kick-off meeting of WeCureALZ so that all partners would better understand the disease, and the promising research happening at Cornell.

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.

Andy Westphal from Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab found that “the crowd” has proven invaluable in analyzing images showing the tracks of interstellar particles returned by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft. And he has a personal connection to Alzheimer’s. His father died of the disease. (And, ironically, had been a leader in one of the earliest citizen science projects, tracking the first Earth-orbiting satellites.)

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.

Robert Letteri explains the “virtual microscope” developed for Stardust@Home, and how it might be applied to having citizen scientists crowdsource stoppages in blood vessels.

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.

“Hmmm… or we could try this…” This is what a start-up meeting looks like: puzzling over different visual approaches to posting images online, and trying to develop the most user-friendly interface for the beta-testers who’ll soon be asked to analyze data.
The Schaffer/Nishimura Lab is full of enthusiastic undergraduates, grad students and postdocs, all pushing frontiers in bioengineering tools and techniques.

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.