Many people, like me, have helplessly watched a loved one suffer and die from dementia. Now there's something average folks can do to help accelerate Alzheimer's research: play a game.
The game, called Stall Catchers, is part of the EyesOnALZ project that uses citizen scientists to analyze Alzheimer's research data. The game was developed by the Human Computation Institute, in collaboration with scientists from Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. The research team is trying to understand the association between reduced blood flow in the brain and Alzheimer's disease.
The game features movies of blood vessels in live mouse brains. Players must search for clogged vessels where blood flow is blocked, or stalled. Each movie is viewed by many players and then checked by a research scientist in order to quickly and accurately identify the stalls.
Past research has shown that Alzheimer's is associated with the accumulation of beta amyloid proteins that clump together into sticky, neurotoxic aggregates called amyloid plaques. These proteins are normally cleared by the blood stream, but the formation of amyloid plaques slows down this clearance process.
Recent animal studies, performed by the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab at Cornell, suggest that improving blood flow in the brain may help reduce the devastating effects of amyloid accumulation. The researchers discovered that up to two percent of capillaries in the brains of Alzheimer's-affected mice were clogged -- 10 times more than usual -- and this caused up to a 30 percent decrease in overall blood flow in the brain.
"Advanced optical techniques have allowed us to peer into the brain of mice affected by Alzheimer's disease," said Chris Schaffer, PhD, principal investigator in the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab, in a recent news release. "For the first time, we were able to identify the mechanism that is responsible for the significant blood flow reduction in Alzheimer's, and were even able to reverse some of the cognitive symptoms typical to the disease."
Now, the main challenge for the Cornell researchers is the time-consuming process of manually analyzing all the brain movies to identify the stalled vessels. They need to study up to a thousand vessels for each animal. That's why they collaborated with the experienced teams at UC Berkeley and MIT to create the Stall Catchers game to get help from the public.
"Today, we have a handful of lab experts putting their eyes on the research data," said Pietro Michelucci, PhD, the EyesOnALZ principal investigator, in a news story. "If we can enlist thousands of people to do that same analysis by playing an online game, then we have created a huge force multiplier in our fight against this dreadful disease."
Previously: Alzheimer's puzzle pieces are coming together, Blues progression: From a dye to a placebo to an Alzheimer's treatment? and Non-scientist video gamers' RNA insights captured in peer-reviewed publication
Image by geralt