EyeWire is a game to map the brain from Seung Lab at. Anyone can play and you need no scientific background. Over 130,000 people from 145 countries play. Together we are mapping the 3D structure of neurons; advancing our quest to understand ourselves.
We’ve landed on Mars, can grow organs, and even skydive from space, yet when it comes to the 3 pound organ behind each person’s eyes – the brain – we’re mostly in the dark. Neuroscientists don’t even know how many different types of cells are in the brain. Think about that. We don’t even know how many types of cells are in the retina. And if we don’t know how many types of cells there are, how can we understand how they connect and process information, leading to a thinking, feeling human being? Here at Sebastian Seung‘s Computational Neuroscience Lab at MIT, we’re taking a different approach to neuroscientific discovery: crowd-sourcing. In order to solve the mind’s great mysteries, we need you.
Why don’t we know how the mind works? One reason is that your mind is massive. Researchers estimate that there are 100 billion neurons in your brain with an estimated one million miles of connectivity [1,2]. A million miles is equivalent to driving around Earth 40 times. You can infer that in order for such great length of neurons to fit into your three pound brain these structures must be very tiny. Neurons range greatly in size — the contact area of a synapse is less than 7 cubic nm [3, 4: data from Seung Lab].
In order to see neurons and the tiny structures called dendrites through which they function, researchers utilize a new imaging technique. “Fix whole brain tissue, slice off layers just a few microns thick, image each slice with an electron microscope, and trace the path of each neuron,” explains David Zhou, Masters Student at Carnegie Mellon, on Quora. These gamechanging techniques generate a terabyte of data for even a cubic millimeter of brain tissue. Now that we can see the brain at the synaptic scale, we have to analyze the images. How?
The images above show the process of mapping 3D branches of neurons from image data. Like most neuroscience labs, Seung Lab uses a combination of Artificial Intelligence algorithms and tracing (3D reconstruction) performed by humans. Why not just use algorithms? Because tracing neurons is hard, even for a person. Neuron branches do not simply get narrower as they grow outward. In fact, narrow dendrites often bulge out into synapses far away from the cell body as you’ll see when you try the Starburst Challenge.
We will eventually train computers to map neurons on their own; however, that day will be far in the future and we need to accelerate neuroscience discovery now. To achieve this, we need something more intelligent than even the most powerful supercomputer— you.
It takes an MIT-trained neuroscientist anywhere from 15 to 80 hours to reconstruct a single neuron. At that rate, it would take about 570 million years to map the connectivity of an entire human brain, known as a connectome. Think that sounds bad? Using the best technology of just 5 years ago, it would have taken over a billion years to map one brain. We’re moving forward extraordinarily fast. And we need your help to go faster.
By playing the 3D game Eyewire, you become part of the Seung Lab at MIT by helping to map the connections of a neural network.
We’re starting by mapping a retina, a part of the brain that plays a significant role in motion processing. Our goal is to map the connections of a several cell types. EyeWire’s first publication recently came out in Nature and demonstrated a new mechanism of motion detection.
Scientific American writes that “no specialized knowledge of neuroscience is required [to play EyeWire]; citizen scientists need only be curious, intelligent and observant. Your input will help scientists understand how the retina functions. It will also be used by engineers to improve the underlying computational technology, eventually making it powerful enough to detect “miswirings” of the brain that are hypothesized to underlie disorders like autism and schizophrenia.”
With their platform, EyeWire is enabling a community of citizen scientists who contribute to breakthrough research, something previously restricted to degree holding academics.
We’ll see you online at EyeWire.org!