The COVID-19 pandemic has made many aspects of face-to-face research impossible for the foreseeable future, pushing scientists to explore remote ways of continuing their research and collecting data. But even before the pandemic, a seismic shift in this direction was already taking place in the field of brain health.
Traditional methods in mental health and dementia research would normally see research participants visit a lab to perform tests, however this method has historically led to difficulties in enrolling large enough samples of people to yield compelling and reproducible datasets.
While numbers in the hundreds might be enough to show if a drug can have a significant effect on a brain function such as memory, when researchers are trying to identify what predisposes the brain to develop depression or dementia and how and why the brain changes in these disorders, thousands of participants may be needed to yield conclusive results.
Now scientists at the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) at Trinity College Dublin hope to tackle this problem using a new smartphone app to carry out a range of major research projects designed to tackle the brain basis of disorders of the mind – from the most widespread mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, to dementia, a problem of increasing global concern as our populations live longer.
The new smartphone app, called neureka, launched ( Tuesday, June 2nd) is a collection of research studies delivered through brain games and self-reflection challenges that allows users to have fun and learn about themselves, while also playing a major part in cutting edge scientific research. Among several research studies delivered through the app, one will help the team at GBHI to identify modifiable risk factors for disorders of the mind – things that individuals and policy-makers can do to prevent people from developing these potentially devastating conditions.
neureka is a nod to that indescribable “eureka!” moment that comes with new scientific discovery, but also the 86 billion neurons in our brains that inspired the creation of the app.Dr Claire Gillan, GBHI Faculty, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Trinity Colleg Dublin and Principal Investigator said:
“One of the really unique aspects of this project is that we are trying to make participating in science fun – we’ve hidden the things we are testing inside games that we hope the public will want to play. If this works, there is huge potential for studying cognition on a whole new scale. Imagine if Pokemon Go or Candy Crush weren’t just games? If at the same time, players were helping researchers to understand how the brain works and how we can develop new ways to prevent mental health conditions and dementia.”
For example, if scientists want to understand whether having the odd glass of red wine protects us from getting dementia, we need to estimate the influence of wealth, culture, climate, and a myriad of other contributing factors before they can arrive at a conclusion. This means it takes thousands of people to come together so the scientists can answer some of the most important questions in brain health today!
Considering these limitations; this vital research simply cannot move as fast as we need it to. In the era of data science, the field is crying out for richer and more complex datasets that permit us to develop individualised understanding of brain health. This data can capture not just the complexity of the brain, but also its moment-by-moment interaction with the environment, and how these conspire to make someone feel acutely unwell.
Dr Gillan continued:
“We simply cannot have 20,000 people come into our lab to do an experiment – it’s not feasible, let alone have them come in once a week for several months. This new technology allows us to track, for the first time, how cognition evolves over time and in concert with changes in life circumstances and one’s mental health. It’s these time courses that are going to allow us to ask the most important, but difficult to address, questions around cause and effect.”
Now, by simply using their smartphone to complete challenges, users can play brain games and anonymously and confidentially share their personal experience of mental health with the GBHI research team. By using the app, they can play an enormous part in fighting disorders of the brain.
The more people that engage with the app; the more scientists will learn about what causes dementia and mental health problems – and how we can intervene before people get sick.
Speaking on the potential reach of the neureka app, Professor Brian Lawlor, Deputy Executive Director of GBHI and Conolly Norman Chair in Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin said:
«Here at GBHI we are very excited about the release of neureka. By moving research in brain health from the lab to the smartphone, Dr Gillan is addressing the important issue of inequity of access to research participation. neureka can potentially reach and benefit much larger numbers of people, including marginalised groups. GBHI believes very strongly that we need to include these vulnerable groups in research as they are particularly at risk from threats to brain health.»
Dr Claire Gillan concluded:
“The goal here is to understand all the different ways people keep their brains healthy. The app is for everyone – those who personally struggle with their mental health, have family risk, or have no problems whatsoever. Whoever you are, your data is a crucial part of the puzzle and will help us build the most detailed models possible of what we can and cannot control in the fight against disorders of the mind.”
DOWNLOAD: neureka is available for free download on the App Store and Google Play Store.
neureka is funded by the Global Brain Health Institute and under the SFI Discover Programme Call 2019. neureka collaborates with the ADAPT centre.
neureka is a collection of fun brain games and challenges that allows you to solve cognitive puzzles and help in cutting edge scientific research at the same time! The more science challenges you complete, the more you help us to fight dementia and disorders of mental health. 50 million people suffer from dementia worldwide, a figure which is set to increase substantially as global populations live longer. For mental health conditions, the number affected is a staggering 450 million. In both cases – the neureka team is focused on delivering identifying modifiable risk factors – things that individuals and policy-makers can do to prevent people from developing these potentially devastating conditions. By playing neureka, you are helping us to transform how research is done and are playing a huge part in the global fight against dementia.
How the app works
- Science Challenges
Science Challenges in the neureka app are like experiments – users complete them in their entirety just like they would in a traditional experiment. Except here, we don’t care if you participate from your couch, your bed, or while riding a bus!
Risk Factors Challenge
There is a growing body of knowledge that up to 30% of cases of dementia could be prevented through simple lifestyle changes, such as the use of a hearing aid, getting more exercise or increasing your social circle. The number of preventable cases is thought to be even larger in low- and middle-income countries, which represents an incredible opportunity for citizens to alter their trajectory and live longer, healthier lives. The Risk Factors Challenge aims to understand more about these modifiable risk factors for dementia, figure out why they have their beneficial effects and work to identify new ways that people can reduce their risk for the future.
Depression affects over 300 million people worldwide at any given moment. An incredibly debilitating condition, it confers risk for a cascade of other health problems, such as suicide and is associated with the development of dementia itself. Most studies think of symptoms as ways to detect that a disorder like depression is present – if you have enough symptoms you get a diagnosis. At neureka, we think about depression differently – we think the way that these symptoms interact and evolve over time may be the secret to uncovering how and why depression strikes. Multimood will be the most comprehensive study of these mechanisms ever attempted – we will do this by sending users push notifications via their smartphone, asking them to tell us how they are feeling at certain times throughout the day. Using this data, we will construct the most detailed understanding to-date of the network of symptoms that make up depression. By completing the MultiMood challenge, you’ll be participating in an enormous undertaking to help researchers figure out new ways to fight depression.
My Mental Health Challenge
You’ve all heard the expression “I’m just a little bit OCD”. Recent research suggests that this might be more true than once thought. Studies that have begun to track larger samples from the general population are beginning to show that mental health is relevant to everyone, not just those with the most severe symptoms. It has also shown that the way we define certain categories of illness – like OCD or depression – may not be a good match to how mental health manifests in the population. The My Mental Health Challenge aims to develop better ways to define mental health, along a continuum rather than as discrete categories. To do this, we are asking thousands of everyday people to tell us about their personal experiences of a range of mental health symptoms that aren’t often measured together in the same individuals. The goal is to transform how we measure, treat and even talk about, mental health struggles that affect us all.
- Free Play
The Free Play section of the app allows users to play brain games outside of the more structured setting of the science challenges. Users can play these games as much or as little as they like, but we hope that they will play them regularly as they ride public transport, wait in the doctor’s office or at any time when they have a moment to kill! The more you play, the more we learn.
Research suggests that difficulties linking different forms of memory together (e.g. shapes and colours) is impaired very early on in dementia (potentially 10 years before diagnosis). It is thought that this is because the parts of the brain that link these memories together is one of the earliest to be affected by the disease.
This game assesses aspects of your mental flexibility (your ability to switch between tasks) and your ability to maintain two trains of thought simultaneously (keeping track of where you are in different number & letter sequences). These abilities are known as ’executive functions’ and prior research has repeatedly shown that they decline 2-3 years prior to dementia diagnosis.
Research suggests that the ability to simulate and search future sequences of events is impaired in older adults and in individuals with damage to an area of the brain called the hippocampus. Some forms of dementia result in early and severe hippocampal atrophy, so we are testing if the decision-making abilities tracked by Cannon Blast may be a new and more sensitive marker of dementia risk than any of our existing tests.
This section of the app is all about the user. Like Free Play, users complete as many or as few of the modules as they like. We aim to use this anonymous information in combination with the science challenge and free play data to explore some new questions about how cognition relates to various aspects of brain health. Some questionnaires in this section probe aspects of your mental health and help us to progress basic science. Others ask about other sorts of things, like your attitude to ageing or dementia. This kind of data may help inform policy-makers in countries all over the world to ensure the public is as informed as possible about matters relating to brain health.
- Scientist-in-Training [COMING SOON]
With recent funding from Science Foundation Ireland’s Discover Programme Call 2019, the team are currently working on new sections in the app that are focused on informing the public about science. New modules will teach users how to know when a media article overblows a scientific finding, how to tell fact from fiction, about importantly, how they can promote their own brain health (using good science!) throughout their lives.
ABOUT THE GLOBAL BRAIN HEALTH INSTITUTE (GBHI)
The Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) is a leader in the global community dedicated to protecting the world’s aging populations from threats to brain health.
GBHI works to reduce the scale and impact of dementia in three ways: by training and connecting the next generation of leaders in brain health through the Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health program; by collaborating in expanding preventions and interventions and, by sharing knowledge and engaging in advocacy.
GBHI brings together a powerful mix of disciplines, professions, backgrounds, skill sets, perspectives and approaches to develop new solutions. We strive to improve brain health for populations across the world, reaching into local communities and across our global network. We focus on working compassionately with people in vulnerable and under-served populations to improve outcomes and promote dignity for all people.
To learn more about GBHI, please visit us on www.gbhi.org or follow us on Twitter: @GHBI_Fellows
Enviado por José Antonio Sierra