Health Watch -- Computers and Research

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A computer could be a researcher's best friend.

When scientists conduct medical research, they don't just work in a laboratory. They also study the results of other research on the same topic to find information that relates to their work. The information age makes that both easier and more difficult.

It's easier in that more of the information is available online or through computerized databases. That allows key-word searches so that scientists can narrow their search to information that might be relevant instead of wading through stacks of medical journals.

It's more difficult because there is so much information available. MEDLINE, the primary medical database, contains more than 12 million records, and about half a million abstracts are added each year. That's a lot of reading.

But now scientists at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have developed proprietary software to make the searching easier and more accurate. The software allows computers to simulate the scientific thought process while searching through data. It looks for relevant associations and statistical relationships, comparing how frequently certain objects appear together in the literature to the frequency that might be expected due to random probability.

Dr. Skip Garner, one of the UT Southwestern researchers who developed the software, says this capability may be especially helpful when dealing with genetic research, which generates such huge volumes of data that it's almost impossible for a human being to digest it all.