Imagine something more mysterious than the trenches of the deep sea, more convoluted than the intricacies of the human genetic code, possibly even more infinite than the vastness of outer space. Meet the human brain.
Memories, mental disorders, language capability, motor skills, and so much more are encoded in this singular organ. Yet, neuroscientists don’t even know precisely how many different types of cells are in the brain. It is truly a modern mystery. (See all the currently unsolved questions in neuroscience.) There are numerous plausible theories about how the brain works, but solid evidence is sorely lacking.
“The brain is probably the most complex biological structure on the planet,” says Joy Hirsch, professor of functional neuroradiology, neuropsychology, and psychology at Columbia University. Hirsch’s research includes the development of brain mapping procedures for neurosurgical planning. “A complete understanding of the brain and its function is an ambitious goal that requires our best combined technologies, computational facilities, and neuroscientists.”
The Obama administration announced a decade-long scientific effort to examine the human brain and build a map of its activity, a project that seeks “to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project (begun in 1990) did for genetics.” This $3 million undertaking comes from the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project spearheaded by the Kavli Foundation. As science journalist John Rennie shares here, some in the neuroscience community harbor doubts about whether the time is right for a high-profile, inevitably politicized project like this one. Science takes time, and data analysis on this scale would certainly not happen overnight. Some say that the Human Genome Project left us realizing there is still so much more to learn. Will the Brain Activity Map and projects like it encounter the same challenges upon completion, whenever that may be?
The Challenges of Brain Mapping
The tricky part is that scientists have yet to find a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons simultaneously without invasive physical probes. New technology enables us to provide the right kinds of images to “map” the brain, but the volume of images that come through would be so overwhelming that it would take an insurmountable amount of time to process the data. Even today’s leading technology, from neuro-nanotech to optobiology to synthetic biology sensors, is limited when it comes to such a large undertaking.
Here’s where projects like EyeWire come in.
EyeWire is an online community of “citizen neuroscientists” who map the retinal connectome (neurons in the retina) by playing an online game. Because the feat of mapping the human brain solo (or even as a small team) would be infinitely large, EyeWire has made use of crowdsourcing strategies to collect data.
“Researchers have calculated that with today’s technology it would take one person 100,000 years to map one cubic millimeter of the brain without the aid of artificial intelligence,” says Amy Robinson, who works on the EyeWire team. (Just to give you a scale, an entire human brain is roughly 1,000,000 cubic millimeters.) “It takes a researcher at our lab…upwards of 50 hours to map an entire cell, depending on its size…and there are over 80 billion neurons in the brain.”
Rules of the Game
For EyeWire, over a time span of seven days, teams on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Google+, and a formidable-sounding Team X (veterans) competed in the games. Each day, the EyeWire team gives updates on the project’s progress via their blog. “Players” who participate in the game trace neurons based on images of the retina acquired at the Max Planck Institute of Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany (see below). The data directly contribute to neuroscience research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
It’s competitive, accessible to the masses, and even–for lack of a better word–fun. No game would be complete without a prize, however, so EyeWire has that covered too. The team that maps the most 3D neuron volume in this time frame receives neuron naming rights.
The genius of this project is in the gamification of the scientific process. By tacking on a time limit, assigning teams, and offering a prize, EyeWire spurs competition in potential “players.” Not only are players contributing to scientific research in the long run, but they can also see their contributions directly in front of them in the game in more-or-less tangible form. The gaming aspect of this citizen science project is what sets it apart from many others like it. Projects like the Human Connectome and Blue Brain have similar objectives but very different plans for execution. “When gamified, crowdsourced science is more than expediting data collection and analysis–it helps communicate science with the world,” states Robinson.
The EyeWire team comprises of members hailing from notably impressive backgrounds–game design, software development, community outreach, artificial intelligence, data structures, in addition to neuroscience. This notable cross-disciplinary approach has resulted in a project that brings the best of these worlds to the citizen science constituency.
Benefits of Crowdsourcing
Robinson goes on to explain why crowdsourcing is an ideal strategy for the future of scientific research: “Labs can no longer continue to work in academic isolation. If we hope to expedite our progress, we need to find ways to invite the world to help make discoveries…Not to mention crowdsourcing brings citizens into the heart of the scientific process.”
If nascent neuro-mapping projects like EyeWire fare well in the long run, it could mean that crowdsourcing will play an even more significant role in larger scientific research projects. Joy Hirsch adds, “We need to think outside the box. Outsourcing part of the task to individuals who may not be card-carrying scientists, but [who are] capable and willing to do some parts of the project, could become a major component of the success of [projects like this].”
Amy Robinson humbly quotes Sebastian Seung, the creator and director of EyeWire: “To understand how our knowledge machine works is more than just meta–it’s epic.” The EyeWire Games are simply a precursor to larger crowdsourced scientific research projects to come. If the greater scientific community chooses to participate, the odds just may be in our favor.
Sebastian Seung’s TEDTalk:
Lily Bui is a senior contributor at SciStarter. Although she holds dual bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works in public media at WGBH Boston and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). Tweets @dangerbui.