Can Data Unlock the Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease?

About 50 million people live with Alzheimer’s disease, which makes the disease a top global cause of death and one of the biggest public health challenges that humans face. People are living longer than ever, this means the Alzheimer’s disease crisis will only grow. Scientists expect the number of people living with Alzheimer’s to double every 20 years. By 2030, 75 million people will have the disease, and 131.5 million people will live with Alzheimer’s by 2050.

Based on these predictions, one thing is clear about the fight against Alzheimer’s: we aren’t winning. However, new advances in science and technology could soon help us make much-needed progress against Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the most exciting developments involve big data.

What Is Big Data?

“Big data” is just what it sounds like: huge, incredibly complex sets of information. Many of these datasets are millions of gigabytes in size. A new laptop computer’s hard drive typically stores about 250 gigabytes. So, imagine a spreadsheet so large it takes 4,000 laptops to hold it—that’s the size of a single “big data” dataset.

Until very recently, technology limited our data processing abilities, and there was such a thing as too much data for research purposes. But today, technology and software companies are creating new data processing tools and techniques that can handle much larger amounts of data than ever before. Using these new methods, researchers are finding hidden connections, drawing new conclusions, and making highly accurate predictions about the world, and about health and disease.

How Can Big Data Change Alzheimer’s Research?

Compared to other industries, the healthcare field has been slow to adopt cutting-edge data analysis tools. However, experts agree that big data has powerful applications that can help doctors diagnose and treat disease, including Alzheimer’s.

For example, a 2014 research paper from the international organization OECD (Office of Economic Cooperation and Development) said that big data “has the potential to be a ‘game-changer’ in global efforts to accelerate innovation in [Alzheimer’s and dementia] research.”

In the report, the OECD said that big data could:

  • Help us understand which human genes are associated with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Improve neuroimaging like CT and MRI scans so we can detect Alzheimer’s earlier
  • Let us create wearable devices that could help people with dementia perform everyday tasks
  • Use crowdsourcing to build and test new theories about how Alzheimer’s disease works

To Understand Alzheimer’s Disease, Data Scientists Need a Diverse Dataset That Represents Us All

Big data tools have one major weakness: they depend on having massive amounts of data. Without enough data to look at, even the most powerful data processing software and the most brilliant data scientists can’t give us new insights.

In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are missing lots of essential data. Past Alzheimer’s disease studies have focused on small groups of people, and these studies also focused mainly on non-Hispanic white participants. To apply the power of big data to Alzheimer’s research, we need to study not only more people but also more diverse groups of people.

Right now, Boston University School of Public Health is working to fix this problem with the ASSIST Study. This new study is a three-year project that will look at brain health and related factors. Where most studies related to Alzheimer’s and dementia focus on small populations of a few hundred, the ASSIST Study will use the Savonix mobile platform to gather data from hundreds of thousands of diverse participants.

You Can Help!

The ASSIST Study is open to all United States residents ages 22 and older, and you can participate in the study from home in just 45 minutes. Your health status doesn’t matter, so you can participate whether you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or you have no known health issues. You only need to meet one other requirement to participate:

  1. You must have an Apple iPhone® 5s or later with iOS version 11.0 or later, and you must use the Health app to track your health information
  2. You must have an Apple iPad® with iOS version 11.0 or later or an Android™ device, such as a tablet or phone, running version 6 or later

RELATED: How Boston University and Savonix Are Teaming Up to Fight Dementia

Ready to Join the Study?

You can join the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia right now. To get started, go to www.assiststudy.org and select the button that says, “Join the Study.” Follow the instructions and do your part today.


References

Dementia statistics. (n.d.). Alzheimer’s Disease International. Retrieved from https://www.alz.co.uk/research/statistics

Grill, J. (2019, January 7). Critical need for diversity in Alzheimer’s research. UCI Mind. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1516739/new-alzheimers-research-highlights-the-need-for-diversity-in-medical-studies/

OECD. (2014). Unleashing the power of big data for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia research: Main points of the OECD expert consultation on unlocking global collaboration to accelerate innovation for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. OECD Digital Economy Papers, 233. ISSN: 20716826. OECD Publishing: Paris. https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/science-and-technology/unleashing-the-power-of-big-data-for-alzheimer-s-disease-and-dementia-research_5jz73kvmvbwb-en#page4