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Playing mind games

Why map neurons if the AI already knows? Because you can do what a computer can't. Video courtesy EyeWire.

Sebastian Seung, a computational neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, directs WiredDifferently, a "citizen science" community testing the hypothesis that the uniqueness of a person, from memories to mental disorders, lies in his or her connectome.

Thanks to advances in imaging, technology, and storage, the rates of neuro data generation far exceed the scientific community's ability to keep pace. "We need an army of people to go out and explore that jungle. Why not engage the public? It's a great adventure,” said Seung in an interview with National Public Radio’s Joe Palca.

Seung and WiredDifferently are also behind the project EyeWire, an interactive game aimed at charting the neural connections in the eye. “Anyone sitting in their living room can just fire up a web browser and look at images of neurons, and help us figure out how they’re connected,” Seung added.

In the game, players identify neurons and their boundaries by coloring in their shapes using a web-based 3D interface. The neurons available to a player are contained in a small cube, and players navigate individual slices or layers of the cube. After identifying and coloring all neurons, players move on to the next cube.

Speaking from experience, playing EyeWire is not as easy as it sounds. The quest to fill my cube with color has been slow going, but humans are still much better at it than computers. However, that could change over time, as player participation automatically enhances artificial intelligence aimed at neuron reconstruction.

Launched in January 2013, EyeWire has more than 50,000 players from 100 countries. It's quite possible that mapping a complete connectome could be for neuroscience what mapping a genome was for genetics. Charting neural connections in the eye is a small endeavor compared to the entire connectome, but this unconventional approach is blazing a new path into the neuro data jungle.

- Amber Harmon

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