Volunteers accelerated research on Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s how you can help too
Note: Parts of this article are taken from a description of Stall Catchers previously written by SciStarter.
In the United States, 5.7 million people live with Alzheimer’s disease, the seventh leading cause of death in America. But there is still no cure or cure. Alzheimer’s disease is close to home for many of us who have seen loved ones suffer and who feel desperate in the face of this disease. With Stall Catchers, an online citizen science project, joining the fight against Alzheimer’s disease is as easy as playing an online computer game.
The search for a cure
Cornell University scientists have discovered a link between “blocked” blood vessels in the brain and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. These blocked vessels limit blood flow to the brain by up to 30 percent. In experiments with lab mice, when the blood cells that caused the stalls were removed, the mice performed better on memory tests.
Researchers are working to develop treatments for Alzheimer’s disease that eliminate dropouts in mice in the hope that they can apply these methods to humans. But analyzing images of the brain to find blocked capillaries is difficult and time consuming. It may take six to 12 months for a trained lab technician to analyze the weekly value of data collection.
So Cornell researchers created Stall Catchers to make finding blocked blood vessels a game anyone can play. The game relies on the power of the crowd – multiple confirmed answers – before determining whether a ship is stranded or sinking.
Citizen science builds the community
Since its inception in 2016, the project has grown steadily, tackling various datasets and uncovering new knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease. Citizen scientists who play the game identify blood vessels as “leaky” or “blocked”, earning points for their classifications.
One of the ways Stall Catchers makes this research fun is by allowing volunteers to form teams and participate in some friendly competition. “Stall Catchers has always aimed to build bridges between communities. Our volunteer “Catchers” are transplants from other citizen science projects, Alzheimer’s caregivers, scientists, players, grandparents, grandchildren, students, library users and the list is long, ”explains Pietro Michelucci, director of the Human Computation Institute and creator of Stall Catcher.
Stall Catchers is a SciStarter affiliate project, which means they have partnered with SciStarter to engage citizen scientists around the world. This includes volunteers from partner companies like Verizon, through their volunteer program. With SciStarter, Verizon volunteers are integrated to meaningfully participate in Stall Catchers among other citizen science projects, a fact that Michelucci appreciates.
Meena Patel, a Verizon Volunteer Champion, orchestrated a project-focused, late-2020 multi-week volunteer event with her finance team, which is primarily based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. She added an element of friendly competition, sorting employees into teams to see who could do the most research. The event exceeded his expectations. “They went above and beyond, even until the last day of the challenge.”
Michelucci noticed the spirit that the Verizon volunteers brought to the game. “They bring new personalities and a fun competitive spirit that helps us all bring our best game to cure Alzheimer’s disease. When the Verizon League joined our group, we saw some friendly jokes in the chat box, ”explains Michelucci. “And sometimes a newcomer finds he has a motivation or a dedication that brings him back hours a day, and he suddenly realizes that he has found a community where he feels right at home. When this happens, as it happened with a member of the Verizon team, we feel like we have been given a new family member and a new head start in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s.
One of the volunteers, Cheryl Mulligan, appreciated the opportunity to do meaningful work to end Alzheimer’s disease. One of her relatives had recently died of dementia when she started playing. “It’s a feeling of helplessness to deal with, whether it’s someone in your family or yourself,” says Mulligan.
Mulligan found the Stall Catchers to be powerful. “It just gives you the satisfaction that you can do something to actually help. You can go right there and take part in analyzing the data for research that will hopefully be able to prevent or find a cure or something for Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia.
“If someone is facing this problem within their family or themselves, it’s just a satisfying way to be able to participate in the research,” says Mulligan.
In addition to the inspiring community element that Verizon brought to the project, some volunteers made historic contributions to the project. Verizon employee Lawrence Smith, for example, quickly made his way up the all-time rankings of the Stall Catchers. He credits transferable skills, particularly his attention to detail, to his work in financial planning and analysis at Verizon for enabling him to be successful in the game. all look alike but I’m trying to find the part of the deal that’s different, explain to me why I’m seeing a gap in the pits, ”says Smith.
The commitment to making a difference through volunteerism sets Verizon apart, Patel says. It was also a great experience for his team. “Volunteering brings you together and shows how much people really care about you. You get to know your colleagues on a personal level, rather than as a professional at work.
Although the Patel team completed their Stall Catchers challenge in late 2020 with the engineering team in the lead, Verizon volunteers across the company are still making a difference with Stall Catchers. They ranked 219,782 videos in just two years to move research forward and show no signs of stopping. Want to join them? Visit Stall Catchers today to join the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.