Using computers to decode Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
By Dr Laura Phipps | Wednesday 23 March 2016
It might sound like something from a science fiction movie but computers are telling us more and more about the human brain and how it works.
In 2013, the European Commission launched a multi-million pound Human Brain Project (HBP) with the goal of integrating work from multiple research teams to create a supercomputer simulation of the human brain. Around the same time the US BRAIN initiative kicked off to create a dynamic map of how the brain works in animals and ultimately, humans. While these huge studies have grand ambitions to decode the inner workings of our most complex organ, a London-based computer scientist has won just over £100,000 (USD$150,000) for his own digital work to map how the brain is affected in neurodegenerative diseases.
The award is the result of a global funding partnership between Alzheimer’s Research UK, Alzheimer’s Association, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the Weston Brain Institute. The programme, called BAND, has just awarded a total of £1.1m (US$1.59m) for pioneering research projects to better characterise the similarities and differences between neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Dr Neil Oxtoby at UCL is benefitting from a £100,000 share of the funding to use data from people at different stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to create computer models of how the two diseases progress, as well as predicting how the two diseases may spread through the brain. This is vital to understand why and when symptoms develop and worsen in the way they do, but also for directing efforts to slow and stop the spread, and the resulting damage.
Dr Oxtoby will start by combining brain imaging data, blood and spinal fluid measurements from people at different stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to create a timeline of changes that happen as each disease develops. These so-called ‘event-based models’, developed by the UCL team, integrate huge amounts of detailed clinical data to gain a more holistic insight into how a disease starts and progresses. The team has already started to do this in Alzheimer’s with data from a large US-based study called ADNI, but now they plan to be the first to map out Parkinson’s using data from a landmark observational study of people with the disease that is sponsored by The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
The second stage of the study will delve deeper into the data to investigate the mechanisms driving the spread of damage across the brain in both diseases. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are driven by a build-up of toxic proteins in the brain. The spread of these proteins causes new areas of the brain to be damaged and new symptoms to emerge.
If you think of the brain like the London tube map – there are several routes that could explain how Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s damage the brain:
Areas of the brain that are most active might be the most vulnerable
g. the busiest stations like Oxford Circus or King’s Cross St. Pancras.
- The most isolated areas of the brain might be the most vulnerable
g. end-of-the-line stops like Edgware or Cockfosters.
- Damage might spread along networks of connected nerve cells
g. vulnerable stations lie on busy tube lines like the Piccadilly or Central lines.
- There might be similar vulnerability across the whole brain
g. Zones 1–5.
Each of these approaches would cause a different pattern of brain shrinkage. By combining real-life brain imaging data from people at different stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, Dr Oxtoby can look at which areas of the brain have the most damage and predict which of these mechanisms may be the most likely. This provides important clues to the mechanisms driving the two diseases which can help in the design of new interventions to slow or halt this damage.
This innovative study is one of 11 projects funded through the BAND initiative, alongside other successful teams from Australia, Italy, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Each project will use a different approach to accelerate our understanding of the biology and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, frontotemporal dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. We’re pleased to be supporting this global initiative to address an important question in neurodegenerative disease research.
The human brain is still the most complex structure known to man. But computers are providing us with an ever more detailed window into our own internal circuitry that has the power to decode neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.