Harnessing the Crowd for Neurology Research

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Science Translational Medicine  20 Aug 2014:
Vol. 6, Issue 250, pp. 250ec141
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3010124

The first problem attacked by crowdsourcing was probably the 1714 Longitude Prize—for a marine clock that would enable accurate calculation of longitude at sea—but subsequent efforts such as Wikipedia in 2001 and Open Source Drug Discovery in 2007 have proven the power of this approach. Now, Brown et al. harness Internet-enabled mobile phones to push further the boundaries of such community experiments. These authors have designed smartphone games to engage large numbers of people in a cognitive science study. Their results show that a big sample size can outweigh the added error inherent in collection of data outside the lab, affirming the potential of crowdsourcing as a powerful scientific tool.

Brown et al. designed four short games entitled “The Great Brain Experiment.” One of these tests the players’ ability to inhibit their own actions. In this game, participants tap fruit falling from a tree when it reaches a marked area on the screen. If the fruits turn brown while falling, however, then the players must inhibit their response and stop themselves from tapping. The game times the players’ reaction and broadly classifies it as “You touched too soon!” “You touched too late!” “Touch the fruit inside the circles!” or “Don’t touch the bad fruit!” In people with an impulse control disorder, the response inhibition is delayed, allowing for a potential diagnosis. Similarly, they presented three other games that tested: working memory, attention, and decision-making in response to losses and gains. More than 44,000 people downloaded these games as iPhone or Android apps, and ~20,000 played the games at least once. Over 85% were university students, and 91% were below 32 years of age. In general, the results from the smartphone games were similar to results reported in the published literature for laboratory subjects performing these same tasks.

The data from The Great Brain Experiment showed that the quality of data gathered with smartphone games can replicate that from controlled laboratory environments. “Gamification” of the experimental study with a stylish and engaging format proved effective at recruiting participants, and the awarding of points incentivized players to produce high-quality data and sustained their participation. More than 2 billion smartphone users are expected by 2015—an enviably large virtual laboratory space for citizen-science experiments and a way to generate data for disease risk prediction, health monitoring, and clinical trials.

H. R. Brown et al., Crowdsourcing for cognitive science—The utility of smartphones. PLOS One 9, e100662 (2014). [Full Text]

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