How Your Idle Computer Can Help Fight Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers studying Alzheimer’s Disease need your help, and a program that runs on your idle computer could make a real difference, according to CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder.

You might remember the SETI@Home project, as part of which people downloaded a software application that helped astronomers crunch data as they searched for signs of extraterrestrial life. Now there’s a somewhat similar project that’s much closer to home. It’s called Compute Against Alzheimer’s Disease, and it's a way that home computer users can make a contribution to the fight against one of the leading causes of death in the United States.  

Researchers at George Mason University created the Computer Against Alzheimer's Disease app, which only runs when the host computer is idle. The program analyzes data generated by complex computer models developed by a team led by Dmitri Klimov, an associate professor of computational biology in the School of Systems Biology.

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The researchers need your help because the computer simulations created by the models are so complex it would take months or even years to complete them using traditional computing methods, according to Steven Armentrout, the CEO of Parabon Computation, which contributed to the software.  By distributing the workload across many computers, data can be analyzed much faster. And because the additional computing power will come from volunteers, the researchers don't have to spend their limited grant money on hardware or a public cloud, such as Amazon Web Services. (Image at left generated by one of the computer models.)

Interested volunteers can download the application here. "The software is completely benign and does not interfere with ordinary computer use," Armentrout said. "The software unobtrusively harnesses idle computing capacity from computers when they are not otherwise being used. Like a screensaver, it works only when you are not."

Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease for which there is no cure. Dementia — its hallmark — robs people of their memories. More than 5 million Americans have the disease; it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and is expected to account for $214 billion in healthcare spending this year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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

Klimov has a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to work on the problem. Researchers have identified Ab protein, which appears to have a key role, but exactly how the protein plays out in the process is speculation at this point, he said.

This is a very worthwhile project. I hope many of you choose to support it.

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