Of all the organs in the body, the brain is surely the most complex. So much so that despite the all the advancements of the modern age, no computer equaling its flexibility and processing power has yet been developed. There are literally billions of neurons and synapses that make up this complex system, hence mapping it on a cellular level has been a task so big that it has not been attempted – that is until now.
Imagine the potential discoveries that could be made if we could see inside the brain, and see the neuronal pathways as they crisscross their way through the grey matter. It’s an opportunity MIT (Princeton University) has found a clever way to attain.
“Much of our difficulty understanding the brain has come because we are unable to see the basic structure of what the brain is like. In order to look at the structure of neurons we have to analyse images – a lot of images. Those images can’t be analysed completely automatically by computer. We actually need human intelligence. Humans are smarter than computers in many ways including seeing things” says Sebastian Seung, one of the minds behind an innovative project that is tackling this complex issue.
In the last two years, MIT (Princeton University) in partnership with Seung Labs, has developed an ingenious approach to this challenge – harnessing the gaming population across the world and turning idle hours into research hours. The result was a game called Eyewire. “It currently takes us about 50 hours to map one cell, that’s one neuron, and there are about 85 billion neurons in one human brain. So we built a game out of the task” says Amy Robinson, the Creative Director at Seung Labs.
Accessed online at eyewire.org, the game challenges players to map neurons from one side of a cube to the other. It’s a microscopic sector of the brain, blown up to essentially act as a 3D colouring book. Anyone can do it – they need no scientific background to contribute to the data that is actually showing us how the brain looks. In fact, 145,000 people from 60 countries have joined the challenge.
It’s not just a 3D colouring book though. It’s an interactive community that hosts Google hang-outs and has incentives and challenges built in. There are badges to earn, high scores to record, and levels to attain. You start by simply following a neuron through a cube and colouring it in. But as you level up, you gain the ability to look for errors in other players work. It’s a clever way of fixing a problem of cross-checking.
What’s more, it actually sounds like fun! “EyeWire holds regular competitions and a weekly “happy hour” on Friday from 2 to 4 pm. During challenges, players compete for bonuses, profile icons, unique chat colors and even neuron naming rights. In-game trivia occasionally takes place through chat. Players level up in EyeWire by beating the Starburst Challenge, unlocking the right to map difficult starburst neurons and earn double points. Advanced players participate in Hunts, where they scour completed cells looking for mergers or mistake branches that need to be scythed away by an ominous, in-game overlord character known as the GrimReaper. If a player finds enough, she is promoted to Scout and eventually many attain EyeWire’s highest ranking, Order of the Scythe .”
This project is an innovative step for the world of research, proving that there are many ways to expand the world of information at our fingertips. Who said gaming time had to be idle time? This project proves research, innovation and recreation can run hand in hand. What an exciting thought.