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Online gaming yields first results for Alzheimer's research – Financial Times

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Online computer gaming is beginning to produce results for research into Alzheimer’s disease, as players compete to analyse movies of blood flow in the brain. 

The Human Computation Institute, based at Cornell University, developed the Stall Catchers game to bring “citizen science” to brain research. Its first crowd-generated results, presented this week at the British Science Festival in Brighton, show the distribution of clogged blood vessels in mice that have been genetically engineered to model human Alzheimer’s disease. 

In recent months, several thousand gamers have been analysing moving images, obtained by fluorescence microscopy, of Alzheimer’s mouse brains. About 40,000 movies have been analysed so far.

The players compete for points by spotting clogged blood vessels, known as stalls, which play an important but little understood role in the progression of the disease. Stalls reduce the blood flow in the brain of human Alzheimer’s patients and mouse models by 30 to 50 per cent. 

In a surprise to researchers, the first results show that stalls are not more prevalent near the plaques of amyloid protein, which is associated with Alzheimer’s.

A still from the game where players compete for points by spotting clogged blood vessels, known as stalls

“If the plaques are not causing the stalls, that could be important information for developing treatments,” said Pietro Michelucci, leader of EyesOnAlz, the crowdsourcing initiative that includes Stall Catchers. Cornell and Princeton universities and the University of California, Berkeley, are participating in the research.

The next project, to be launched in Brighton on Friday, will look for links between high fat and low fat diets, and blood flow in the Alzheimer’s brain. 

Dr Michelucci said the task was ideal for crowdsourcing because computers still performed poorly on analysis of blood vessel images, and the task is very time-consuming for trained researchers.

When the project started, the EyesOnAlz team estimated that the pooled input of 20 online gamers would be equivalent to one trained researcher. The procedures have since been adjusted, so it now takes the pooled input of just seven non-experts to give the equivalent of one expert opinion. 

Most gamers are either school-age children or pensioners.

“Some of our best players are 80-something grandparents and eight-year-old grandchildren,” said Dr Michelucci. “We designed the game so that even early stage Alzheimer’s patients can contribute directly to their own potential treatment.” 

Doug Brown, research director at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Research into dementia still lags far behind other conditions. It’s therefore great to be able to harness technology and the brainpower of the general public to help us catch up.” 

Although Stall Catchers is believed to be the first use of a computer game for Alzheimer’s data analysis, gaming already plays a role in diagnosing and even treating the disease, as well as other neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s. Patients’ performance while playing games can be used to monitor the condition of their brain, and gaming may help to build up neural resilience against dementia.

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