I sit hunched over my laptop, fingers prepped to pounce on the space bar. I wait anxiously for a red ball to pop up on my screen and, when it does, I slam the keyboard.
It feels like I’m playing a video game—but I’m not. I’m helping to research human cognition.
The team behind MindCrowd, the massive online cognitive study I’m taking part in, is hoping a million more people worldwide will spend 10 minutes taking the same test. With the knowledge they glean from the results, they plan to better understand age’s effect on memory and use that information to help prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Unprecedented in its size and scope, the project is a product of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), a Phoenix-based non-profit dedicated to developing earlier diagnostic abilities. It has two phases: The first, launched in June 2013, seeks to get one million participants to take the brainteaser and share basic information like sex, age and education; the second, set to begin soon, will feature more intensive testing and ask for more detailed personal information.
By studying participants’ scores in relation to their personal information, TGen aims to learn how genetic factors can influence memory.
The study’s origins
…date back to the mid-2000s, when Dr. Matt Huentelman—MindCrowd’s founder and principal scientist, and an associate professor of neurogenomics at TGen—conducted similar research. The face-to-face study included 500 participants and investigated how aging affects episodic memory.
“That,” Huentelman says, “was the basis for me to scratch my head and say, ‘This was great, but couldn’t we do this better and bigger?’”
The answer was to go digital, which meant testing would be quicker, more convenient and more accessible for participants and larger, less expensive and more inclusive for researchers. Of course, web-based crowdsourcing is prone to issues of dishonesty and cheating—“most of the things you can imagine a scientist would get squirrelly about,” Huentelman says—but the team is confident valid results will trump the bad ones.
The most important benefit to tapping into the web, Huentelman says, is the range of demographics that comes with such a substantial study. The number and variance in type of participants—so far, nearly 30,000 people have taken the test, and it will soon be available in nine additional languages—will eventually allow Huentelman to research particular subgroups of people to an extent no project has done before.
People love to compete and brag about their score.
After the second phase of testing, for example, he might analyze the memories of people with high blood pressure onset before 30 who also have a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s.
Despite Mindcrowd’s innovative possibilities and high-tech presentation, its tests are surprisingly simple and, well, old. The two stages—there’s the red ball attention test and a memory test that asks participants to remember word pairings—are based on cognitive tasks developed in the 1850s, and engage parts of three areas of the brain associated with memory: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, and limbic centre.
Once Huentelman’s team has explored how genetic factors link to memory, it plans to use that knowledge to determine what existing drugs could help to prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s (the drug may vary depending on a person’s genetic factors). That method—repurposing a drug developed for another issue—is similar to how they approached MindCrowd’s 500-person predecessor; after testing was complete, the team was able to pinpoint a vascular drug that had the capacity to improve learning and memory in rats.
“Normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same things,” Huentelman says, “but if we can develop or find agents that enhance cognition it will likely help with aging and diseases of cognition.”
What TGen will do with the data
Huentelman will be able to draw useful conclusions whether or not MindCrowd reaches one million participants. While larger numbers would yield more usable information, Huentelman says that he’ll be able to analyze results as the “rolling study” progresses. There are already data to learn from; a publication based on findings from the first 30,000 test scores, including evidence that female memory outperforms male across all age groups, is in the works.
The team is also gearing up to invite phase one participants to take part in the second phase, which will include more tests, such as genetics or brain imaging studies, that can be specifically tailored to particular subgroups.
So far, MindCrowd has attracted roughly 100 participants daily. “People love to compete and brag about their score,” Huentelman says, adding that others may be personally connected to Alzheimer’s. “You’re a grandchild, you’re a son, or you’re a daughter,” he says. “You’re frustrated, and you ask, ‘How can I help other than attending doctor’s appointments?’ Well, this is help.”
Luc Rinaldi is a Toronto-based freelancer.