Can Netflix Algorithms Cure Alzheimer's Disease?

March 26, 2021
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Researchers at the University of Cambridge recently published a study suggesting that the same machine-learning technology used in apps like Netflix and Facebook can have powerful applications to neurodegenerative research. They argue that AI can predict the biological language of Alzheimer's and other diseases, enabling scientists to understand and correct grammatical mistakes inside cells.

First: A little biology lesson

(Put your STEM cap on.)

  • The human body is home to thousands and thousands of proteins, and scientists don't yet know the function of many of them.
  • In Alzheimer's disease, which affects 50 million people worldwide, proteins go rogue, forming clumps and killing healthy nerve cell
  • Understanding these things called bimolecular condensates — droplets of proteins found in cells is necessary for Alzheimer's research. Scientists believe that defects connected with the droplets can lead to diseases.

How can AI help?

You know on Netflix — how it miraculously recommends shows that are precisely what you're looking for? That's the exact type of algorithm Dr. Saar and his team at Cambridge pursued when conducting their Alzheimer's research.

They built a language-processing program that took in data on known proteins. "In the same way apps like WhatsApp know how to suggest words for you to use," their algorithm learned and predicted the language of these proteins.

This enabled the researchers to ask the program-specific questions about the grammar that leads some cells to form proteins that condensate inside cells, causing disease.

Understanding this perplexing feature of neurodegenerative diseases can help unlock profound insights and potentially pave the path for a future solution.