Want to cure Alzheimer's? Get in line. Researchers have long been puzzled by the disease and vexed by how long it's taking to unravel its mysteries.
One group of scientists is helping speed up that process with assistance from the public. "Stall Catchers," a game created by Cornell University's Human Computation Institute, turns the hunt for a cure from frustrating to fun.
In the game, players watch short movies - made using a multiphoton microscope - that show blood flowing through the brains of living mice. Players work on a data set of thousands of images to point out "stalls" - areas of reduced blood flow caused by white blood cells accumulating on the sides of the vessels.
The films might seem far removed from the experience typical of people with Alzheimer's disease: difficulty concentrating, jumbled speech and confusion. But they may be closely linked: It's thought that reduced blood flow in the brain is at least partially responsible for Alzheimer's symptoms.
When a blood vessel in the brain gets stalled, blood doesn't flow as it should. A single stalled capillary might seem like no big deal, but in mice with Alzheimer's disease, up to 2 percent of brain capillaries can be stalled. Because vessels in the brain are so interconnected, that can restrict overall brain blood flow by up to 30 percent. Reduced blood flow has been found in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease, too.
When scientists prevent stalls from occurring in mice, some Alzheimer's symptoms go away. Might the same be true for humans? To find out, researchers at Cornell's Schaffer-Nishimura Lab need to know more about stalls, but it could take decades for them to learn enough to develop an effective drug that's safe for humans.
Computers can't reliably perform the work - but people can.
Players get points for "catching" stalls and can participate in challenges and marathons. They can form or join teams and leagues, and compete to point out the most stalls. So far, they have been right about stalls more than 99 percent of the time.
You can get in on the fun via your computer or phone: Sign up at stallcatchers.com.
Story by Erin Blakemore. Blakemore is a freelance reporter based in Boulder, Colo., and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.