Spending 10 minutes playing an online brainteaser may unlock the secret to preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
That is the hope, anyway, of Matt Huentelman, a researcher at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix. TGen is a nonprofit organization working to develop ways to diagnose and treat cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes and other complex diseases by building on knowledge gleaned from the Human Genome Project, the mapping of our DNA.
Huentelman (pictured at right) is the mind behind MindCrowd, an ambitious web-based research project designed to learn more about the region of DNA that determines how the brain works. The goal is to collect data — test scores — from 1 million people.
“This would be an epic scientific study if we got to a million people,” says Huentelman, who joined TGen in July 2004 after completing his doctoral work at the University of Florida's Department of Physiology and Functional Genomics at the McKnight Brain Institute, where he investigated the application of gene therapy in the study of hypertension.
The 10-minute game tests paired-associate learning — the learning of words in pairs so that one member of the pair evokes recall of the other. Two words flash up on screen — horse and ride, for example. After a dozen pairs are shown, one word is shown and it’s up to you to type in the missing word that was paired with the known word. The game goes three rounds.
The test engages very specific areas of the brain, Huentelman says.
“We will eventually study the extremes — the best of the best, the worst of the worst,” he says.
Those who move into phase two of the study will be asked to provide saliva swabs for DNA testing and to take a larger battery of tests on a personalized website.
Those who take the test can see how they compare to broad averages and various sub-groups such as age, education attainment level and marital status. Married people, for some reason, score lower on the test than single people. There is a subtle but noticeable decline in scores as people age.
The MindCrowd word test is not a diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s disease or an indicator of future risk, Huentelman says. It’s merely a test of memory function, but the cumulative data may help the researchers.
The ultimate goal, Huentelman says, is development of drugs to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, much like statins such as Lipitor are used to prevent heart disease.
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number has doubled since 1980, and is expected to be as high as 16 million by 2050.
Want to take the test? Click here and then click on "take the test" see how you stack up.
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