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Your Computer Downtime Could Help Crack the Alzheimer's Code

George Mason University researchers create a distributed computing project to unravel the mysteries of the disease.

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Researchers at George Mason University have created a tool that allows anyone to donate their computer downtime to Alzheimer’s research, enlisting the public’s help in studying the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

A team led by Dmitri Klimov, an associate professor of computational biology in the School of Systems Biology, has constructed complex computer models to study molecules implicated in the disease.

But the computer simulations can take months or even years with limited computing power, so the researchers collaborated with Parabon Computation on the Compute Against Alzheimer’s Disease project. The distributed computing platform allows thousands of computers to work together on the problem all at once. Anyone can install the software, which runs when their computer is idle, chipping into the scientific effort whenever it can. (Download it here.)

“Like a screensaver, it works only when you are not,” said Steven Armentrout, Parabon’s chief executive, in a statement.

One of the main targets Klimov’s team is studying is the amyloid precursor protein. It’s normally innocuous, but it’s also the main component of the amyloid plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, for reasons little understood.

“Despite all the efforts, we still don’t know how the disease develops on a molecular level,” Klimov said in a statement. “Exactly what causes Alzheimer’s is not known.”

Your favorite photo-sharing app or online game might have all the cloud computing power they need, often thanks to venture capital funds covering their Amazon Web Services bill. But despite the serious nature of the problems that academic researchers are working on, they too often have inadequate computing and monetary resources at their disposal.

Klimov earned a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the problem — a sizable pot for science, but a figure that wouldn’t even rate a Re/code story were it a venture capital round.

Distributed computing projects have become a common means of multiplying limited processing power. The Baker Laboratory at the University of Washington created the Rosetta@Home tool to help decipher or design proteins that could be used in therapeutics and vaccines against diseases like AIDS and influenza. (Download it here).

Going a totally different direction, researchers at UC Berkeley set up SETI@home, leveraging distributed computing to analyze radio telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Wikipedia lists dozens of additional examples where researchers have asked the public to pitch in as citizen scientists.

“It’s a way to involve people in real research,” Klimov said.

Update: This story has been updated to fix the spelling of Parabon Computation.

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