EyesOnALZ: Crowdsourced Research to Accelerate Future Alzheimer's Treatments

Pietro Michelucci, PhD
Human Computation Institute (Ithaca, NY)
Year Awarded:
2017
Grant Duration:
July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2019
Disease:
Alzheimer's Disease
Award Amount:
$484,910
Grant Reference ID:
CA2017606
Award Type:
Other
Award Region:
US Northeastern
Pietro Michelucci, PhD

The most gratifying aspect of this project has been the outpouring of support from so many people who have become involved with it.

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Crowd-powered Microvascular Modeling – EyesOnALZ Phase 2

Summary

The central aim of this project is to accelerate research into potential Alzheimer's treatments targeting the brain microvasculature. This will be done through our EyeOnALZ project, which uses Citizen Science (a form of crowdsourcing). Without this crowdsourced program, the same research would otherwise take decades to complete.  Our approach is to transform a time-consuming laboratory task into an online game that anyone can play. Project success depends upon recruiting and sustaining an active population of public volunteers and improving our ability to extract research value from each participant.  We also hope this project provides a hands-on way for people affected by Alzheimer's disease (AD) to make an impact on their own future or that of a loved one, and that it educates the general public about the disease.

Details

In the EyesOnALZ project, we are developing a Citizen Science platform that enables anyone to play "Stall Catchers," an online game to help speed up AD research being conducted at Cornell University.  By turning time-consuming data analysis into an online game, we are supplanting laboratory-based analysis with an accurate, crowd-based solution that outperforms conventional methods.  The impact of this platform on research speed scales with the size and engagement of our participant community, as well as the efficiency with which we make use of our participants' gameplay activities.  So we are focusing our efforts on both of these areas, by improving the crowdsourcing science to extract three times as much research value from each person's contributions, and by growing our community of participants through a variety of outreach activities, user research, and new features to improve the user experience.  We are also developing artificial intelligence methods to speed up the data pre-processing that needs to happen so that the research data can be inserted into the game.

This is the first (and only) citizen science project that speeds up Alzheimer's research by crowdsourcing the data analysis.  There have been other laudable efforts that use crowdsourcing to advance Alzheimer's research, such as SeaHero Quest and MindCrowd, but these projects collect data about the behavior of their participants.  The EyesOnALZ project, in contrast, enlists volunteer gamers to actually help analyze laboratory research data.  In other words, when people play Stall Catchers, they are looking at brain blood vessels through a virtual microscope and are working alongside scientists to analyze the research data.  By harnessing the power of the crowd in this way, the research can be accelerated by orders of magnitude.

Volunteers playing Stall Catchers already are analyzing data almost twice as fast as the Cornell lab’s capacity.  By the end of this project phase, we expect to achieve an analytic throughput 10 times as fast as the parallel lab-based effort. This potentially reduces the time to an effective treatment discovery from 30 years to just two or three years.  Because this platform serves as a general purpose tool for accelerating blood flow analysis in brain microvessels, it is supporting numerous Cornell studies that will not only bring us closer to a treatment, but also potentially improve our general understanding of various cardiovascular factors that might contribute to AD, such as diet. The data analyzed in Stall Catchers also may point to methods for noninvasive early detection and intervention.

About the Researcher

Pietro Michelucci, PhD, directs the Human Computation Institute, a multidisciplinary innovation center that develops crowd-powered systems to address societal problems. He is editor-in-chief of the Handbook of Human Computation (Springer Publishing Co., 2013) and founding editor of the journal Human Computation. Michelucci received a joint PhD in cognitive science and mathematical psychology from Indiana University, and has been advising federal research agencies since 2006. In 2014, he led a three-day summit at the Wilson Center, which produced a national roadmap for Human Computation research.  As an Organismic Computing pioneer, he is interested in developing new methods for augmenting collective intelligence (ie, a branch of artificial intelligence that creates collaborative networks among many humans and machines).  In 2015 he launched the EyesOnALZ citizen science project to accelerate Alzheimer's disease research.

Personal Story

The most gratifying aspect of this project has been the outpouring of support from so many people who have become involved with it, including donors, Alzheimer's caregivers and patients, BrightFocus Foundation leaders and staff, project team members, scientific colleagues, the Stall Catchers participant community, journalists, and even "random people you meet in airports."

As a recent example, a man named Paul stopped by the EyesOnALZ booth, at a technology conference in the UK.  He currently is taking care of his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.  He wrote to us afterward and said: "For some time I've been looking for ways to use my knowledge and skills as a technologist/front-end developer to contribute to the fight against Alzheimer's. I think Stall Catchers is amazing and I'd love to contribute to the project wherever I can. Indeed, just playing it over the weekend makes me feel like I'm already contributing!"

Every single person I know who learns about the project goes the extra mile to help us be successful.  I feel like I am on the biggest, winningest team in the world, which gives me great confidence that, together, we will find a treatment soon.

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