For Science! Intrepid Gamer Community Discovers Six New Neuron Types

Nikki Diefenbach

Princeton University’s innovative Seung Lab has combined the strength of crowdsourcing and the gamer community to make breakthrough discoveries and create vast troves of information about how ganglion cells work.

From the Eyewire website: “Eyewire is a game to map the brain. Anyone can play and you need no scientific background — hundreds of thousands of people from around the world already do. Together we are mapping the 3D structure of neurons and advancing our quest to understand ourselves.”

Over 250,000 Eyewirers from all over the world, called “Heroes of Neuroscience,” compete to reconstruct 3D neurons. Using data from a mouse retina gathered in 2009, gamers have spent hundreds of thousands of hours putting the cells together to develop neural maps. So far, they have discovered six new neuron types and they are still making new discoveries form that same mouse retina.

Part of the game involves coloring in 3D “cubes,” each of them 4.5 microns across and only a tiny subset of a cell. So far, about 10 million have been colored. Every cell is reviewed by up to 25 gamers before it is marked as complete by the system. This collaborative effort has resulted in the mapping of 3,000 neural cells and the discovery of nine new neural networks. The speed with which neurons are being mapped is growing exponentially, going from two weeks to finish a single cell to players being able to complete more than one neuron in a single day. Amy Robinson Sterling, a crowdsourcing specialist with PNI and the executive director of Eyewire goes into more detail in a TedxKyoto talk below about the game.

According to Sterling, the Eyewire user experience stays focused on the larger mission — “For science!” is a common refrain — but it also replicates a typical gaming environment, with achievement badges, a chat feature to connect with other players and technical support, and the ability to unlock privileges with increasing skill. “Our top players are online all the time — easily 30 hours a week,” Sterling said. Eyewirers have also written program extensions to improve game play. The community ethic is the main reason why Eyewire has succeeded. Sterling says this camaraderie is the key. “You come in, and you’re not alone. Right now, there are 43 people online. Some of them will be admins from Boston or Princeton, but most are just playing — now it’s 46.” You can read more about Eyewire in the link below.

Eyewire is a place people can be in community with others doing something worthwhile for science together. That this collaborative effort is being harnessed by researchers and combined with machine learning shows how our unique strengths as individuals and in groups can be magnified towards a common good.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. What other ways can crowdsourcing be used for science?

Q2. What online communities are you active in?

Q3. Has your online ever worked together towards a noble cause?

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