Using games for research

Two summers ago I was part of this summer Neuroscience class and we got introduced to this site called Eyewire. At first, I heard that we were going to play a game, which was a pleasant yet confusing surprise. But then I realized that it was used for actual research. Here’s how it works:

You are given a cube on the left and an image on the right.

Image result for eyewire

The image is a “slice” from a part of the cube. Your job is to focus on one of the shapes (like that green area shown above) and as you scroll through the cube, you try to keep selecting that same area. It’s a bit hard to understand the explanation by just text, but it’s quite intuitive once you experience it for yourself. The images used are actual images of neurons inside the brain of a mouse. The brain was “sliced” into extremely thin areas and then scanned. Several people will work on the same image, so even if an individual makes a mistake and diverges from the actual neuron, the majority of people will choose the right path of the neuron, so there is a sort of safety net for mistakes. There are also “moderators” who are experts of this game; not professionals in terms of academics, but normal people that just have been playing this game for longer than others. They help answer questions users may have or help correct a neuron’s path.

So, collectively, thousands of people play this game to collect data on the path of neurons from the brain of a mouse. There are billions of neurons in the human brain, and trillions of synapses, which are the paths between neurons. The way to understand the brain would be to study these neurons and synapses, but the staggering amount of research to be done would take far too long if it was to be done by the small groups of researchers we have around the world that focus specifically on this. That is why they turned to a broader community, gamers. Well, anyone that knew and was willing to play the game, really, so that would encompass an even bigger group. This is a revolutionary game that uses the collective work of non-specialized and non-academic people working to create valuable data for future research. There has already been research conducted that analyzed these paths that were labeled by these players. Hopefully, this game inspires others to adopt this idea to create more beneficial change.

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