Gaming

Online Game Battles Alzheimer's

Cornell University researchers have developed a game that they say they hope will be picked up and played by non-experts to help the experts accelerate their Alzheimer's research efforts.

In Alzheimer's about 2 percent of brain capillaries can be clogged, reducing overall blood flow in the brain and classifying those capillaries as "stalled." Two researchers in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering have been experimenting with the impact of reduced blood flow on brains in mice that get the disease. According to one of those researchers, Associate Professor Chris Schaffer, they've been able to "identify the mechanism that is responsible for the significant blood flow reduction in Alzheimer's." They've also been able to "reverse some of the cognitive symptoms typical to the disease when we gave a drug that improved blood flow."

What's slowing the work down, he said, is finding stalled blood vessels, "a process we have not been able to automate and which is done through manual image inspection." Image data that may take two hours to acquire can take another week for that manual image analysis. So far, computer algorithms haven't done an accurate enough job of identifying the stalled blood vessels. The human eye has proven more effective.

"My hope is that with help from the public, we can dramatically accelerate the pace of our research," said Assistant Professor Nozomi Nishimura, who is the other primary researcher on the project.

That's where the game comes in. "Stall Catchers," as it's called, enlists players to earn points by scrolling through brief, black and white videos to hunt for clogged blood vessels. After watching a short tutorial and going through a quick registration process, the player waits as a video is loaded and then marks whether blood is flowing or is stalled. Responses are verified against other users' responses and the points add up.

The game was developed by the Human Computation Institute (HCI), a non-profit organization that uses "crowd power" to work on complex problems. The institute has launched EyesOnALZ, an initiative that will undertake additional games intended to contribute to Alzheimer's disease research.

Other participants in the project  include Princeton University, SciStarter.com and WiredDifferently.org.

"Today, we have a handful of lab experts putting their eyes on the research data," said Pietro Michelucci, director of HCI, in a Cornell article on the project. "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."

The game is available for online playing at StallCatchers.com.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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