Much of the world knows Sergey Brin as the 36-year-old co-founder of Google. What many people may not know is that Brin also a genetic mutation in a gene called LRRK2, which sits on the 12th chromosome. For Brin, this genetic mutation means that his chances of developing neurodegenerative disease Parkinson’s by 30 to 75%.
When he first discovered that he had Parkinson’s in 2008 after he had a genetic test done his wife’s, Anne Wojcicki, company, 23andMe, Brin joined forces with the Michael J Fox foundation and made a blog to announce his connection to the disease. At that time, Brin wrote, “I know early in my life something I am substantially predisposed to. I now have the opportunity to adjust my life to reduce those odds (e.g. there is evidence that exercise may be protective against Parkinson’s). I also have the opportunity to perform and support research into this disease long before it may affect me. And, regardless of my own health it can help my family members as well as others.”
So what do you do when you’re worth $15 billion and you’ve been given a heightened chance of developing a life threatening disease? If you’re Sergey Brin, you do everything to prevent that development from happening. According to Wired Magazine, Brin swims and dives daily as exercise has been shown to lower the risk of developing Parkinson’s by 60%. Brin has also taken to drinking green tea as researchers believe caffeine may help reduce the risk as well. On top of his own prevention methods, he has donated $50 million to research to help prevent and cure the disease.
Wired Magazine reports that Brin’s approach to the research, however, is quite different than most scientists are used to. Normally, researchers would first create hypotheses, then research, then make conclusions, but Brin would rather first research and then hypothesize based on patterns pulled out of the research by computer programs.
Brin wasn’t impressed with former research done on Parkinson’s as he says the test population was too small and there were too many environmental biases. To prevent this, Brin relies on his experience with databases and search functions similar to those that Google uses. Brin would rather collect immense amounts of data and then allow patterns to emerge rather than closely studying small groups of people.
In an interview with Wired Magazine, he cites Google Flu Trends, which was able to determine where swine flu outbreaks were going to occur just by studying major trends in Google searches. Similarly, Brin wants to gather large amounts of information and search through the information to find and analyze the trends.
According to The Times, Brin and his Wojcicki’s company, 23andMe are spending millions of dollars to conduct a study to ‘investigate inherited and environmental factors that contribute to the disease and advance research into new treatments.’ 10,000 Parkinson’s patients will participate in the study, and they will be asked to fill out environmental and lifestyle surveys. Once this information is analyzed, Brin hopes that patterns will emerge.
Brin’s hypothesis that environmental factors play a large part in Parkinson’s development may not be far off the mark. Research done by the Medical University of South Carolina concludes that Parkinson’s may be caused by exposure to toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, or hydrocarbons.
Brin’s research and financial contributions could mean the world for future Parkinson’s patients. With the success of Google Flu Trends and other general technical success Brin has had, analyzing the trends behind diseases such as Parkinson’s could lead to not only prevention of Parkinson’s but other diseases as well.