A Game Is Helping Speed Up Alzheimer’s Research

Researchers around the globe are working together to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

One group, in particular, are working on a new approach, seeking the public’s assistance. Offering a game known as “Stall Catchers,” this application is allowing international “citizen scientists” to help speed up Alzheimer’s research.

Stall Catchers: Making Alzheimer’s Less Frustrating and More Rewarding

Designed at Cornell University, Stall Catchers is a game that allows citizens to search the brain for stalled blood vessels. While viewing real movies of live mouse brains, players help identify the type of stalled blood vessels that may contribute to Alzheimer’s. These “stalls” are essentially clogged capillaries, where blood is no longer able to flow.

By accurately identifying stalls, players are able to build their score. As they level up, they will compete with other leading players. Participants also receive digital badges for their achievements in the game. And although the gaming component is fun, all of the participants are contributing to something greater.

One of two online games developed by the Human Computation Institute, these applications are part of the EyesOnALZ citizen science project. Featured on major news outlets, including Financial Times and Discover, this game currently has more than 10,230 “catchers.”

A Community of Citizens Fighting Alzheimer’s

Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, researchers have made significant progress in understanding the disease itself. One key aspect of research has focused on the role of blood flow in the brain. More specifically, a reduction in blood flow. Since this deficit may be responsible for some of the progressive symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the effect of stalls has been studied in mice.

In the past, researchers have found that by blocking the development of stalls in mice, they have been able to reverse various cognitive symptoms, including memory loss. These preliminary findings were important, yet time-consuming. Due to intensive data analysis, these initial findings took several years of research.

This is where crowdsourcing comes into play, as Stall Catchers is helping speed up this analytical process. By offering players a special tool, referred to as a Virtual Microscope (VM), they can watch blood vessel videos on their devices. By looking at layers of brain tissue, participants can watch blood vessels come in and out of view.

Regardless of one’s age or background, everyone can contribute to researchers’ data analysis. This could essentially reduce study periods from years to weeks.

A Closer Look at Reduced Blood Flow in the Brain

We often discuss the role of amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain, but when it comes to what causes Alzheimer’s, there are numerous theories. Likely a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors, it is important to explore all possibilities.

Of the current theories, long-term reduction in blood flow is a key area of interest. After all, a lack of blood flow is what causes vascular dementia. Scientists also agree that poor blood flow to the brain occurs early on in the progression of Alzheimer’s. This may lead to damaged brain cells and cognitive impairment.

Since changes in the brain’s blood flow tend to occur before the accumulation of plaques and tangles, this has led to the vascular hypothesis. As blood flow becomes impaired, so does the brain’s energy supply. This theory suggests that decreased cerebral blood flow, destruction of the blood-brain barrier, and inflammation may be responsible for neuronal damage.

As stated in one review, “It is difficult to determine whether the vascular component in Alzheimer’s is the cause or the effect of this disease. However, there is no doubt that vascular pathology has an important relationship with Alzheimer’s.”

Improving Brain Blood Flow

Although we cannot say that vascular variables cause Alzheimer’s, it is clear that poor brain blood flow does have a significant effect on cognition. In fact, poor blood flow to the brain has been associated with brain fog, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s, anxiety, depression, and traumatic brain injury.

Since improving brain blood flow may help treat or prevent Alzheimer’s, it is important to address the major causes of reduced blood circulation to the brain. These include poor thyroid function, abnormal blood pressure, infections, poor circulation, and stress.

To actively increase brain blood flow, you will want to:

  • Maintain a physically active lifestyle. Starting today, walk 30 minutes, three to four times a week.

  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature not only reduces stress levels, but light also stimulates brain blood flow.

  • Consume more foods that improve blood circulation, including dark chocolate cayenne pepper, garlic, ginger root, goji berries, beets, and salmon.

Protect your heart to protect your brain. Also, do consider the importance of BrainTest®, an assessment app that will help you better detect the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive impairments. 

For more information on the link between heart and neurological health, please read the following articles, Are You On Blood Thinners? If So, You May Significantly Reduce Your Risk of Dementia, as well as Get Your Blood Pumping — Exercise Could Fight Off Alzheimer’s.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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