Imagine if every time you kicked back to relax and play some video games, you were also helping scientists get closer to solving complex medical issues. The implications could be quite powerful, as it is estimated that Earth’s population spends approximately 3 billion per week playing computer games. Harnessing even a fraction of this work towards scientific research would have the potential to lead to a wealth of discovery.
A group of neuroscientists at MIT have done just that with a game called EyeWire, which challenges participants to map out neural pathways in the human brain. Players get a virtual cube of material packed with a tangle of neurons to analyze. The layout resembles a three-dimensional coloring book: a computer looks over the model and does a rough sketch to map out a single neural branch amid the tangle, leaving the player to go over the details and accurately fill in any missing spots. Meticulously passing over and coloring in each slice eventually leads to the mapping of complete neural pathways.
Although the game does use a certain amount of artificial intelligence to map out the neurons, at this point human vision is still much better than machine for correctly picking out patterns in this kind of task. Additionally, the AI is actively learning each and every time a player plays the game, leading to more accurate digital tracing in the future.
The amount of information to be mapped is massive. Researchers estimate there are 100 billion neurons in the brain with an estimated one million miles of connectivity, enough to encircle the globe 40 times. It takes an MIT-trained neuroscientist 15 to 80 hours to reconstruct a single neuron, which in turn would take 570 million years to map out the entire brain. EyeWire currently has over 40,000 registered and active users, resulting in more than 500 hours of work per day spent mapping out neurons. Through this gamified approach, the seemingly impossibly large task of mapping out the brain is made possible by enlisting the help of willing gamers.
Sebastien Seung, one of the designers of the project, says:
We need an army of people to go out and explore that jungle. Professional scientists are too few in number to do all that by themselves, so why not engage the public? It’s a great adventure. What could be more exciting than exploring the brain? It’s much more exciting than any artificial video game.
Scientifically focused games such as EyeWire give researchers a way to draft the assistance of people completely outside the usual academic realm, which is generally a very closed off group. By being open for anyone and everyone to play, users are not required to have any sort of degree or higher qualification. Gamified science platforms such as this have great potential to harness human’s playful ingenuity towards constructive ends.
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