Head Games

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: November 2015
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TGen crowdsources groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research with an online memory test.

PHM1115PFVN05Across 50 states and 150 countries, folks who know nothing about neurogenomics are logging onto their laptops to help science sleuth the mysteries of Alzheimer’s. In the comfort of their homes, possibly wearing pajamas, they’re demonstrating how menopause and smoking influence memory. They’re revealing how sex and heredity alter reaction time. Soon they’ll collect their own DNA for sequencing.

Scientists at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) – which translates breakthroughs in genetic research into treatments for diseases – hope you’ll join them.

The Phoenix-based nonprofit recently created MindCrowd.org, the world’s first research project that harnesses the power of crowdsourcing to seek a cure for Alzheimer’s. Afflicting 44 million people worldwide, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Currently, no treatment can stop its erasure of the mind. That could change in the next several years.

By gathering clues about the genetics of healthy brains, MindCrowd aims to deduce the DNA origins of dementia. “If we learn about regions of our blueprint that are associated with performance on these tests, we could also be unlocking secrets about new ways to fight [Alzheimer’s],” says Dr. Matt Huentelman, MindCrowd’s founder and associate professor of neurogenomics at TGen. “The ultimate prize is the intelligent design of medicines that target newly found genes to prevent disease.”

MindCrowd’s fun, 10-minute brain game begins with a reaction test: See a pink ball, press Enter. Then a word-pair quiz measures memory. You’ll earn a score you can compare to different demographics and brag about at the bar.

With the help of publicity and Tweets from celebs like Ashton Kutcher, TGen hopes to recruit 1 million MindCrowd participants. So far, 60,000 have taken the test, revealing some intriguing facts:

>> Men react about 20 milliseconds faster than women at every age.

>> Women remember better than men at every age. The gap widens at menopause, when women’s cognition warms up like a hot flash.

>> Overall performance declines with age. About 5 percent of 18-year-olds score perfectly, compared with a single septuagenarian.

>> Smoking impairs women’s performance, but not men’s.

>> People who have a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s perform below average on both tests, starting at age 18.

Things will get really interesting in Phase 2, which will launch before the end of the year. Participants who volunteered their email will be given new tests and questions about diet, sleep, exercise, family history of Alzheimer’s, and more. “We want to give you a more complete picture of how your brain works,” Huentelman says.

PHM1115PFVN06TGen will also invite test-takers to submit DNA. They’ll mail you a kit; you spit in a vial or supply a drop of blood and mail it back. Then they’ll run it through their DNA sequencers. You won’t get a diagnosis, but your genome could hold the key to a cure for Alzheimer’s (see sidebar).

Scientists have already pinpointed about 30 genes associated with risk for Alzheimer’s. “But if we added it all up, we still could probably tell you about half of your genetic risk,” Huentelman says.

Combining the brawn of big data with the strategy of sequencing, TGen aims to identify new culprit genes and environmental risk factors. “The more we add genes to that list,” Huentelman says, “the more pharmaceutical targets we have, the more we understand the puzzle of our mind.”    

Soon, MindCrowd will launch in nine more languages, growing what is already the largest study of its kind. More participants means truer results and a better chance of finding individuals with rare, plot-twisting genes. Since the project is online, inexpensive and minimally invasive, MindCrowd can continue to expand in scope and depth.

“This test is going to be chugging along the Internet forever,” Huentelman says. “If we’re doing something new in 2025, we’ll ask people to take that test or give us another sample... We can see how you change over time, which makes the study even more powerful.”