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MRI Brain Scan

Scientists striving to cure Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders are turning to a powerful new tool they hope will light the way to effective treatments: big data.

The idea is to use supercomputers to search through reams of patient data – everything from MRI scans to the results of cognitive testing to lipid levels – for patterns that might reveal the precise cause of neurodegenerative disorders, which have so far proved stubbornly difficult to predict, halt or even slow down.

But figuring out how best to share information from potentially tens of thousands of people around the world is proving to be a legal, ethical and logistical challenge, which is why the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convened a workshop on the subject in Toronto on Monday, one of the first gatherings of its kind.

"Up until really quite recently, most of these studies have tried to link together one or two variables. So we have [brain] imaging and we look at cognition or we have genetics and we look at behaviour," said Michael Strong, dean of the school of medicine and dentistry at the University of Western Ontario in London.

But tying together a dozen or more variables across diseases in a single database, "that's really quite new," Dr. Strong said. "We're really on the cusp."

Dr. Strong, the lead investigator for a $28.5-million Ontario research project that intends to harness big data to better understand brain diseases, attended the OECD workshop along with more than 50 other scientists, doctors, policy experts, computing whizzes and patient advocates.

The workshop comes as governments around the world appear to be waking up to the toll neurodegenerative disorders are taking on health-care systems and the economy in general, a toll that is expected to rise as the population ages.

Dementia already affects more than 35 million people worldwide and costs more than $600-billion (U.S.) a year in treatment and formal and family care, according to the Ontario Brain Institute, the provincially funded research centre that co-hosted Monday's event.

"There is a definitely a momentum right now," Francesca Colombo, the head of the health division at the OECD's Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, told The Globe and Mail's editorial board.

She pointed to British Prime Minister David Cameron's campaign to put dementia on the international agenda, leading to a commitment last year from G7 countries to find a cure or treatment for dementia by 2025.

George Vradenburg, convener of the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer's Disease and the founder of the advocacy organization USAgainstAlzheimer's, said attitudes toward dementia are beginning to change, although the disease still lags well behind cancer, heart disease and HIV-AIDS in terms of research funding.

Part of the reason Alzheimer's has attracted fewer public and private research dollars in the past is that victims of the disease cannot speak for themselves and their caregivers are too exhausted to speak for them, said Mr. Vradenburg, who delivered a keynote speech capping off the meeting.

"I think people regard it as personal. I think people start by saying, 'I want to preserve the image of my loved one in a healthy state,'" he said in a question-and-answer session moderated by Globe public health reporter André Picard.

The failure so far to find a drug that halts or slows the progression of such a complex disease is no reason to despair, Mr. Vradenburg added.

"There wasn't any hope for an HIV-AIDS cure. There wasn't any hope for polio for a long period of time. There wasn't any hope for a lot of these diseases. But at some point people got sufficiently angry that there wasn't anything done that anger turned into mobilization."

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