Scientists harness public brainpower as video game helps Alzheimer's study

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Thousands are already playing the online 'Stall Catchers' game
Thousands are already playing the online 'Stall Catchers' game
8 September 2017 12:30AM

An online game is helping scientists improve their understanding of Alzheimer's disease by studying the performance of thousands of players from all over the world.

The aim of the "Stall Catchers" game is to spot tiny capillary blockages in video images from brain scans of mice with the condition.

As players try to rack up points by identifying the clogged vessels, known as "stalls", they also supply valuable statistical information to the researchers.

The work focuses on a well-known but poorly understood link between reduced blood flow in the brain and Alzheimer's, which affects 62% of the UK's 850,000 dementia sufferers.

So far 5,500 players have registered for Stall Catchers, including both school children and elderly Alzheimer's patients, but scientists hope to recruit 30,000.

A first finding has shown no association between stalls and beta-amyloid plaques, toxic protein deposits in the brain, despite earlier suspicions of a link.

Another investigation looking at the role of high-fat diets in the development of blocked capillaries in the brains of Alzheimer's patients is expected to yield results in two to four months.

The "citizens' science" project called EyesOnALZ came about to resolve problems associated with analysing many thousands of images.

Even the best computer systems can only perform this task with 85% accuracy. While humans are better, they are individually very slow.

Chief EyesOnALZ scientist Dr Pietro Michelucci, from Cornell University in New York, said: "There's this analytic bottleneck problem.

"The idea here is you try to make light work of a big task through many hands. You take a big problem and you split it up into many tiny pieces and each person contributes to solving the problem."

Crowd sourcing could achieve in just a few years what would take a small team of trained lab technicians decades, he pointed out.

Speaking at the British Science Festival in Brighton, Dr Michelucci said he was not disappointed with the initial negative result from the project which had still produced useful data.

"If these plaques are not directly causing the stall, that suggests a different kind of treatment focus than if they were," he said.

So far the game had logged some 725,000 views of 40,000 videos.

At one school in Idaho, USA, children were seen playing the game between classes as they competed to improve their score.

The game is carefully designed to reward the most trustworthy players. Every so often a player is given a video containing a known number of stalls. If a player provides correct answers that match results from these "test" images, he or she scores more points.

Dr Doug Brown, director of research at Alzheimer's Society, said: "Due to decades of underfunding, research into dementia still lags far behind other conditions. It's therefore great to be able to harness technology and the brain power of the general public to help us catch up.

"We welcome innovative approaches like this to help accelerate our understanding of the condition, to find new treatments, cures and ways of preventing dementia in the future."

Visitors to the science festival will be able to play Stall Catchers at an event being held on Brighton Pier on Friday night.