Using big data to solve a big problem


By Kirsty Marais | Thursday 06 July 2017

If you read the news regularly, you’ll know that we now live in an age of big data. Predictions abound about how the data revolution could transform everything from our homes to our transport and healthcare. And now we can add dementia to the list, thanks to a new project aiming to boost our understanding of the condition.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is proud to be a partner on the newly-launched IASIS project – a £3.8m, Europe-wide collaboration that will see researchers pull together big data from a range of sources to gain new insights into different diseases. Over the next three years, the team will focus on Alzheimer’s disease and lung cancer, and it’s hoped the project could ultimately help inform policy decisions about our approaches to treatment for people with these diseases.

What is big data?

‘Big data’ might sound like jargon, but it’s a good label for what it describes: very large, often complex amounts of information. Thanks to technological advances, there’s been an explosion in big data in recent years as we’ve become increasingly able to collect and store these large datasets. We’ve seen this on an individual level too: just look at the number of people who now use wearable fitness trackers or smartphone apps to collect data on their exercise and calorie intake, for example.

But the real value doesn’t come from simply collecting the data: for information to be useful, we need to analyse it. Just as data from a fitness tracker becomes useful when it helps someone make healthy changes to their lifestyle, big data comes into its own when we can glean insights from it that could help us solve big challenges. And dementia is one of the biggest challenges we face.

IASIS: turning health data into useful knowledge

We’re not using fitness trackers for this project – but a wealth of data is now being collected through different dementia research studies, and if this information can be combined, there is huge potential to gain vital new understanding. In different Alzheimer’s studies, thousands of volunteers have been willing to give DNA samples, undergo brain scans, take memory and thinking tests, and even share their entire medical records to help research. Each of these studies is helping advance our understanding of how the disease develops, how to detect it early, and how we might treat it. Imagine what we could learn if we could put this information together.

But analysing all that data can be a difficult task – and that’s where the IASIS project comes in. Funded by the European Commission, the three-year project involves 10 research organisations across five countries, all bringing their expertise to bear on this challenge. In the UK, a team from Alzheimer’s Research UK and St George’s, University of London, will focus on pooling data from several existing studies into Alzheimer’s disease, creating one comprehensive database.

The goal is to create a tool that researchers and doctors across the world could use to look for trends and patterns, and to answer important questions. For example: do patients with different medical histories respond differently to Alzheimer’s treatments? And what patterns do we see when people are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s – could we detect the disease earlier? These are just some of the many questions the project could help answer, and ultimately, we hope the insights gained from this data will help inform governments’ health policies too. We’re only at the start of this work, but we’re excited about its potential and we’ll bring you updates as it progresses.

Get involved

This project wouldn’t be possible without the thousands of volunteers who have given up their time to join dementia studies. There are plenty of ongoing research projects across the UK that need people to take part – to get involved, visit Join Dementia Research to register your interest.


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Kirsty Marais