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Mapping neurons through online gaming

By: Jenny Cade, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology ‘15

One of the biggest challenges in neuroscience today is mapping the wiring of the nervous system. Looking at the spatial arrangement of neural networks can tell us a lot about how information is relayed, but accurate 3D mapping of neurons is an enormously challenging task, even with the aid of computer analysis. One group of researchers at MIT has harnessed the power of crowdsourcing to tackle this problem.

The project, called Eyewire, has recently yielded its first publication. The Nature article presents new evidence for how mammalian eyes detect motion. By analyzing the 3D arrangement of the cells in a mouse retina involved in relaying visual information, the authors have shown that the spatial organization of neurons is involved in perceiving movement. (To read more about the mechanism, see the links below.) But even more interesting than the findings of this study are its methods: much of the work of mapping the neural wiring was done not by scientists in the lab, but by people playing a game on the internet.

Anyone with a computer can play the game by visiting eyewire.org. When you start the game, you are presented with a cube with a blue blob inside it. The cube represents a stack of electron microscope images of mouse neurons; the blue blob is one particular neuron that computer AI has picked out of the pile of tangled spaghetti that is neural tissue. Your job: to fill in the parts that the computer missed. Gameplay consists of moving through stacks of microscopic images to trace the neuron throughout the cube, and clicking on parts that the computer missed to add them to the overall structure. Each cube is completed by many players, and each player is rated for accuracy by comparing their results to everyone else’s. The result is a 3D map of neurons that can then be analyzed to find patterns, like those involved in motion detection.

Having spent an embarrassing amount of time playing Eyewire, I can tell you that it’s more fun than it sounds. (A friend of mine said it’s like someone took the tedious parts of working with Photoshop and turned it into a game.)  Eyewire doesn’t have the addictive power of Candy Crush Saga or 2048, but it’s nice knowing that while I’m killing time playing a game, I’m actually doing something useful.

The Nature paper:

Jinseop S. Kim, Matthew J. Greene, Aleksandar Zlateski, Kisuk Lee, Mark Richardson, et al. (2014) Space-time wiring specificity supports direction selectivity in the retina. Nature 509: 331-336 doi:10.1038/nature13240

Hear about it on the Nature podcast:
http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index-2014-05-08.html

For an excellent, jargon-free explanation of the study’s findings:
http://blog.eyewire.org/eyewires-first-scientific-discovery-and-nature-paper/

Play Eyewire:
http://eyewire.org/

Image from Eyewire, used with permission.