The Crowd: our newest weapon in the fight against Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s research breakthroughs cannot come fast enough, which is why we need approaches that break the rules and find new proactive ways to fight the disease that affects all of us. In this guest post, Egle M. Ramanauskaite of the Human Computation Institute (HCI), tells us how a new Alzheimer’s citizen science game – Stall Catchers – is aiming to achieve just that.

Everyone can have a direct impact on fighting Alzheimer’s through science. How? By joining the community of Stall Catchers – the first online game to crowdsource Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research.

Stall Catchers is a product of EyesOnALZ – a first of its kind Alzheimer’s citizen science project at the HCI. EyesOnALZ is based on research being done at the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab (Cornell Dept. of Biomedical Engineering), where recent breakthroughs have been made in understanding the effects of reduced blood flow in Alzheimer’s.

Data analysis is so time-consuming that each research question takes at least a year to answer.

The group has discovered that stalls – clogged blood vessels where blood is no longer flowing – could be heavily involved in the development and progression of AD, which seemed like a promising path toward finding new treatment targets. In fact, the researchers have demonstrated that blocking the stalls restores blood flow to the brain and reduces cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s in mice.

Unfortunately, the data analysis is so time-consuming that each research question takes at least a year to answer. At this rate, it would take decades to get close to a cure.

However, this is the kind of problem that could be solved using citizen science.

“When I saw the specific visual tasks involved, I immediately realized they were the kind of data already being explored in successful citizen science projects, and we could follow a very similar path to speeding up the research,” – says Dr. Pietro Michelucci, Director of the HCI.

For the first time, citizen science is poised to make a difference in Alzheimer’s research.

Citizen science – public participation in the scientific process – has been successfully applied in various fields, including astrophysics, molecular biology, genetics and others. For the first time, citizen science is poised to make a difference in Alzheimer’s research too. Far more than just fast-tracking data analysis, we soon realized this could be a way to empower anyone to have a direct impact on fighting a disease that affects them or their loved ones.

As of the beginning of this year, our innovative approach to Alzheimer’s research had been funded by the BrightFocus Foundation (the official society of Molecular Neurodegeneration).

“Although this is changing, there remains significant skepticism in the scientific community about the validity of crowd-based data analysis,” – says Dr. Michelucci. “Fortunately, BrightFocus has a longstanding culture of innovation that overrides such preconceptions, and sees promise in this approach.”

Just over a month ago the first game of the EyesOnALZ project, Stall Catchers, was released to the public.

Stall Catchers is based on using a “virtual microscope” to analyze layers of images from a real mouse brain, identifying each individual capillary as flowing or stalled. The game has already been played by over 1,300 participants, with more than 130,000 vessels analyzed in just 6 weeks’ time.

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The game is currently undergoing a “validation study” to test the hypothesis that crowd-based answers are just as good as those of experts. However, our preliminary results make us fairly confident that the crowd answers are indeed as good as or even better than expert ones.

“In Stall Catchers, we rely on consensus algorithms, which combine answers from many people to get one expert-like answer,”- says Dr. Michelucci, “even if any participants make a few mistakes, the wisdom of the Crowd prevails.”

Even if any participants make a few mistakes, the wisdom of the Crowd prevails.

Currently, we are developing new features at Stall Catchers that will show participants exactly how their efforts connect to the research, how much their efforts are advancing the science of AD, what questions they are helping to answer, and how those answers get us closer to identifying a treatment.

But the data is just part of the picture. We are extremely optimistic about the potential of Stall Catchers to accelerate Alzheimer’s research and treatment discovery, all the while creating opportunities for the participants to learn about the disease and the process behind it.

Most importantly, we hope this approach will empower everyone – caregivers, family members, and even Alzheimer’s patients themselves – to contribute directly to a possible treatment that could make a difference for them or their loved ones.

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