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WeCureALZ – crowdsourcing a cure for Alzheimer’s

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Posted February 2, 2016

Artificial intelligence has taken over much of our lives, but computers still fall short of the extraordinary perceptual and cognitive skills that humans have. Human computation, on the other hand, is proving very useful in solving subtle science questions, including folding proteins into their appropriate 3D shapes, helping to map the brain, classify cancer cells and more. Drawing from successful examples of crowdsourcing science this way, a brand new citizen science project, WeCureALZ, is aiming to fast-track a cure for Alzheimer’s disease too.

Credit: Hamed Parham (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Credit: Hamed Parham (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alzheimer’s is a devastating disorder of the nervous system and despite extensive research in the area, no adequate cure exists. Curiously though, one of the most profound symptoms – reduced blood flow to the brain, has been recognized since the discovery of the disease. But since the underlying causes of this have remained unclear, no treatments were developed in this particular direction.

Imaging Alzheimer’s brain in vivo

Novel imaging techniques have recently enabled researchers at the Schaffer – Nishimura Lab (Cornell University) to image live mouse brain capillaries over time. By fluorescently labeling different blood components, researchers can track blood flow, identify plugs, and monitor how they change over time.

Fluorescently labeled blood plasma appears white in the images with "shadows" of unlabeled red blood cells moving over time (oval). Darker areas that don’t change through time can be identified as stalled vessels (arrow). Credit: WeCureAlz.

Fluorescently labeled blood plasma appears white in the images with “shadows” of unlabeled red blood cells moving over time (oval). Darker areas that don’t change through time can be identified as stalled vessels (arrow). Credit: WeCureAlz.

The evidence gathered so far suggests plugs are caused by white blood cells, which aggregate in places of inflammation and restrict blood flow to downstream vessels. The effects of such stalls can span large areas of the brain, costing it up to 30% of its total blood flow. More importantly, the researchers believe this might contribute to reduced clearance of amyloid-beta plaques, which have been implicated in the etiology of the disease. Understanding and reverting the stalls could thus make a major difference in delaying or even reverting the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

The potential of these findings is promising – however the amount of images that hold clues to possible drug candidates is overwhelming for any single group of researchers to analyze. That’s where the crowd can help.

New citizen science initiative

Teamed up with the creators of well-known citizen science projects – EyeWire and [email protected], researchers at the Schaffer – Nishimura Lab and Human Computation Institute are therefore seeking the help of citizen scientists, who could help reduce the time to possible drug candidates by orders of magnitude. Even more importantly, by taking the time to solve simple visual puzzles, carers, family and early Alzheimer’s disease patients could themselves contribute to research that could make a major difference in their own lives.

map retinal neurons in EyeWire

Much how they map retinal neurons in EyeWire (above) and annotate layers of aerogel in Stardust@home (below), citizen scientists could help reconstruct a map of Alzheimer’s brain capillaries, and enable analysis of blood flow changes over time and in response to treatment. Credit: eyewire.org (above) and NASA (below).

Much how they map retinal neurons in EyeWire (above) and annotate layers of aerogel in [email protected] (below), citizen scientists could help reconstruct a map of Alzheimer’s brain capillaries, and enable analysis of blood flow changes over time and in response to treatment. Credit: eyewire.org (above) and NASA (below).

WeCureALZ project has recently acquired funding from the BrightFocus Foundation, and is going ahead with the development with the public launch planned later this year.

“This is a way to have a direct impact on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s – a disease that is having a devastating toll on millions of patients and their caregivers,” says Dr. Pietro Michelucci, who is leading the WeCureALZ project.

Image analysis is still a tough cookie to crack for computers, but unique human visual skills could spot the stalled vessels and reconstruct a map of Alzheimer’s brain with much greater efficiency. This would help researchers to analyze a myriad of data that comes from ‘before’ and ‘after’ drug treatments, and arrive at possible treatment candidates in just a few years’ time.

For one group of researchers to analyze thousands of Alzheimer’s brain vessels would literally take decades. However, using the models of existing citizen science projects, the crowd successfully achieve the same in just a few years.

For one group of researchers to analyze thousands of Alzheimer’s brain vessels would literally take decades. However, using the models of existing citizen science projects, the crowd successfully achieve the same in just a few years.

Moreover, reduced blood flow is prominent in other health issues as well, including diabetes, hypertension, brain trauma and others. As such, the model refined by citizen scientists in the next year or so could become a universal crowd-powered tool for a range of diseases, including other types of dementia.

Want to make a difference? It is literally as easy as playing a game. WeCureALZ is open to everyone, no prior knowledge necessary, and you can pre-register to do your part right now! Registered participants will be contacted by email when the project goes live.

WeCureALZ was featured on SciStarter.com and Discover Magazine blogs last month, and is to appear in a 4-hour documentary series “The Crowd and The Cloud”, covering citizen science, crowd-sourcing and Big Data, in early 2017.

Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė

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