Searching for Lost Memories Under Thousands of Microscopes


On a cool September evening, Judy Johanson curled up on her living room sofa with her iPad, carefully examining mouse brains. Her husband, Steve, slept just a few feet away. It was granular work, especially for a woman who for 24 years ran a daycare center. Judy scrolled through hundreds of slides, searching them, one by one, for tiny black spots. The task might have appeared deeply tedious—but Judy was in the zone. While Steve dreamed, she was joining thousands of amateur scientists in the search for a cure for his disease.

Miranda Katz is an associate editor at Backchannel.

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When Steve was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease six years ago, at age 58, he told Judy: “We can choose to be sad or we can choose to be happy.” So they chased happiness: The Johansons worked with the Alzheimer’s Association and began lobbying local and federal politicians for more research funding. Until last November, Steve was part of a promising 18-month clinical trial for a drug intended to slow his cognitive decline. Judy felt certain that the drug was working, but earlier this year researchers concluded it was ineffective.

The news was crushing. Since then, Steve’s experienced a significant decline. His mobility is limited; Judy converted their living room into a bedroom so that he doesn’t have to use the stairs. One day this summer, he walked straight into the swimming pool that he’d constructed in their backyard nine years earlier. As Steve’s symptoms have worsened, it’s become harder to find trials for which he qualifies; at times, a treatment can feel impossibly far away. He no longer remembers telling Judy they should “choose to be happy.”

But Judy has found solace in sorting through the slides of tiny mouse brains that might hold the key to Steve’s recovery. She’s one of six thousand people who have logged time playing Stall Catchers, a game that helps researchers investigate how treating the impaired cerebral blood flow associated with Alzheimer’s can help reverse memory loss. (In mice, lab researchers have found, it can.) By turning the research into an online game, its creators hope to speed up lab research—and hopefully lead to a treatment for the disease in a few years, as opposed to a few decades.

Stall Catchers is part of a long legacy of crowdsourced science projects, also known as “citizen science.” The practice dates back to well before the internet era: Since 1900, for instance, birdwatchers across North America have participated in a Christmas census of bird populations, and in 1956, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory recruited thousands of people to help professional scientists spot the first artificial satellites. But the internet has allowed for a veritable explosion of citizen science projects; today there are more than one thousand efforts underway, with more than a million volunteers offering up their uncompensated time and resources to help search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, diagnose malaria, and track damage from hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Stall Catchers is a little different. Yes, plenty of its players are the same quirky enthusiasts and retirees that go gaga for crowdsourced astronomy and history projects (and sometimes even wind up with their names on scientific papers). But at the game’s heart is a community of people like Judy