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Stall Catchers – citizen scientists worldwide are speeding up Alzheimer’s research

Stall Catchers is a citizen science game, developed by the Human Computation Institute as part of the EyesOnALZ project in 2016.

Funded by a grant from the BrightFocus Foundation, HCI has been collaborating with Cornell, Berkeley, Princeton, WiredDifferently, and SciStarter to develop a platform for crowdsourcing the AD research being done at Cornell University.

Stall Catchers” will allows participants to look at movies of real blood vessels in mouse brains, and search for “stalls” – clogged capillaries where blood is no longer flowing. By “catching stalls” participants can build up their score, level up and compete in the game leaderboard, as well as receive digital badges for their various achievements in the game.

Most importantly, the game will enable the crowdsourcing of promising Alzheimer’s research at the Schaffer-Nishimura Laboratory (Cornell Dept. of Biomedical Engineering).  There, recent breakthroughs have been made in understanding the role of reduced brain blood flow in AD, and reversing some of the Alzheimer’s symptoms, such as memory loss and mood changes, by targeting blood vessel stalls.

Stall Catchers has been built on the existing platform of stardust@home – one of the first volunteer thinking projects. Just as aerogel images were being studied in stardust@home to look for interstellar dust particles, in Stall Catchers a “Virtual Microscope” plays back vessel movies – images of consecutive layers of a live mouse brain. Participants analyze one microscopic vessel at the time, looking for signs of stalls.

The game, launched Oct. 1, 2016, is expected to remove the current analytic bottleneck of blood flow analysis in AD, and accelerate the research towards promising AD treatment candidates.

EyesOnALZ on PBS in Episode 1 of The Crowd and The Cloud

First episode of The Crowd and The Cloud
First episode of The Crowd and The Cloud
EyesOnALZ, a project led by the Human Computation Institute, will be among four projects featured in the premiere episode of The Crowd and The Cloud, a National Public Television mini-series by the creators of Cosmos.

By turning complex laboratory analysis into a game (Stall Catchers) that anyone can play, EyesOnALZ has made it possible to accelerate Cornell’s promising Alzheimer’s disease research to compress decades of inquiry into just a few years.

Crowdsourcing Alzheimer’s Research

Human Computation Institute is leading an initiative to develop an online Citizen Science platform that will enable the general public to contribute directly to Alzheimer’s Disease research and possibly lead to a new treatment target in just a few years.

It has long been known that reduced blood flow in the brain is associated with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.  However, new imaging techniques have enabled our Cornell-based collaborators to make important discoveries about the mechanisms that underlie this reduced blood flow.

These findings are suggestive of a new treatment approach that could reduce cognitive symptoms and halt disease progression.  However, arriving at a specific treatment target based on these findings requires additional research.  Unfortunately, the data curation required to advance these studies is very labor-intensive, such that one hour’s worth of collected data requires a weeks worth of annotation by laboratory personnel.   Indeed, the curation aspect of the analysis is so time consuming that to complete the studies necessary for identifying a drug target could take decades.

Fortunately, accurate curation of the data, though still impossible for machines, involves perceptual tasks that are very easy for humans.   We aim to address the analytic bottleneck via crowdsourcing using a divide-and-conquer strategy.  The curation tasks in this research map closely to the tasks used in two existing citizen science platforms: stardust@home and EyeWire, both of which have enabled discoveries reported in the journal Science.  In direct collaboration with the creators of these highly successful citizen science platforms, we are developing a new platform for public participation that we expect will reduce the time to a treatment from decades to only a few years.

If you are interested in participating in an online activity that will directly contribute to Alzheimer’s research, please pre-register here.  By participating, you will not only help speed up a treatment, but also understand more about the disease and exactly how your efforts make a difference.

This project includes collaborators from Cornell University, Princeton University, U.C. Berkeley, SciStarter, and WiredDifferently.

Pietro Michelucci

Life, the Universe, and Information Processing

Abstract (the full paper is available here as a PDF)

Humans are the most effective integrators and producers of information, directly and through the use of information-processing inventions. As these inventions become increasingly sophisticated, the substantive role of humans in processing information will tend toward capabilities that derive from our most complex cognitive processes, e.g., abstraction, creativity, and applied world knowledge. Through the advancement of human computation – methods that leverage the respective strengths of humans and machines in distributed information-processing systems – formerly discrete processes will combine synergistically into increasingly integrated and complex information processing systems. These new, collective systems will exhibit an unprecedented degree of predictive accuracy in modeling physical and techno-social processes, and may ultimately coalesce into a single unified predictive organism, with the capacity to address society’s most wicked problems and achieve planetary homeostasis.

Toward a National Research Roadmap for Human Computation

HC Institute director, Pietro Michelucci, led a multidisciplinary group of world experts in the emerging field of “human computation” in Washington, DC last week to consider the unprecedented capabilities that might arise from crowd-powered systems and to map out the research needed to get there.

The workshop itself employed human computation techniques in service of its own goals, such as participatory gaming, workflow execution, group composition, and interaction mechanics.  Through these methods, workshop participants explored human motivation in participatory systems, worst-case scenarios, mapped out high impact success cases, and iteratively developed new human computation solutions to societal problems to help identify research gaps and inform related national policies.

The three-day workshop, held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was proposed and co-organized by the Human Computation Institute, Cornell University, and the Wilson Center, and funded by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC).  A workshop report, under development by the co-organizers and community of participants, is expected to be published by the CCC in early 2015.

*** UPDATE: workshop report now available here ***

Event coverage links:


Michelucci invited to White House “gamification” event

HC Institute director, Pietro Michelucci, participated in a White House meeting this afternoon to discuss crowd engagement methods that involve game-like elements.   This was the first in a series of Washington, DC-based events titled “Games & Crowds: Using Computer Games to Maximize Crowdsourcing Outcomes”, to explore the societal value of such methods and prospective related initiatives.  In a follow-on event, Dr. Michelucci will be presenting tomorrow at George Mason University on the topic of “Building Contentment” and the prospective role of gamification in the future of human labor.