Sebastian Seung has a grand vision to map the intricate connections of the brain, cell by cell. His tool is not a high-powered supercomputer or a microscope. It is a free videogame.
Earlier this year, Seung launched EyeWire, an online game that users could use to color in brain cells involved in vision. Monday was “J Day” for Seung and his team at MIT—a more official launch of the game and a concerted get-out-the-citizen-neuroscientist effort that expands the kinds of cells that users are mapping to include a so-called “J cell.”
The game hasn’t exactly gone viral overnight. Before J Day, each day there were about 35 to 50 players coloring in cubes of neurons on the website, logging a collective 40 to 50 hours daily. In the past month, more than 25,000 cubes have been mapped. That doesn’t seem too bad for a startup, but even that amount of work is puny in comparison to the challenge—it traced just seven neurons. Seung hopes to see that number increase.
Other efforts to turn citizen science projects into computer games have been successful, such as Foldit, a computer game in which players contribute to knowledge about how proteins fold. But it’s still unclear what level of resolution will be needed to create a meaningful map of the brain and whether the game will recruit enough dedicated players to make a dent in the problem. Some scientists believe brain maps done at a less zoomed-in scale would be far quicker to create and still provide important data.
The mapping that users do on EyeWire is simple. Basically, users are helping improve on computers’ imperfect abilities to trace neurons and understand where they end and begin. Users are presented with a cube that contains a stack of black-and-white microscope images taken from slices of mouse brain. The computer has highlighted a neuron of interest within that cube of tissue, in blue. It is up to users to examine each slice and make sure the computer is coloring inside the lines, following the neuron through the entire three-dimensional cube, erasing mistakes, and coloring areas the computer might have missed.
J cells are involved in vision, and are activated by objects that move in a certain direction—down. Ultimately, as the technology platform is proven and more users sign up, Seung wants to launch brain mapping challenges that could help unravel the wiring differences that underlie lots of poorly-understood neurological conditions and psychiatric diseases.