Hello everyone! For my English project I had to make a expository speech (with a corresponding PowerPoint presentation) and, together with my groupmates, speak in front of all my batchmates and some teachers. I decided that the topic of my speech is about Eyewire! I hope you enjoy reading this, and I would gladly accept some feedback and constructive criticism on my work too. Thanks!
Eyewire: A Game To Map The Brain
Video games have evolved drastically over the years, from a few black-or-white pixels on a screen to realistic 3D worlds. At the same time, the field of neuroscience has also developed, and we slowly but surely get to know more about our brains. But, what if we combine these two concepts together to create a game where we can map the brain? This is EyeWire.
EyeWire is a game to map the brain. It is a project created by Sebastian Seung at Princeton University, with its headquarters currently residing in Boston.
Before we talk about what it’s like to actually play the game, let’s explain more of the science behind this. How were all these neurons “mapped” in the computer in the first place? Scientists start with a piece of brain that’s removed from an animal, which in this case is a zebrafish. Since the neurons are naturally transparent, they are “stained”, so they can be imaged. They are then embedded in resin and cut into nano-thin slices using a diamond-tipped cutter. The resin is used to hold the neurons in place during the cutting process. Finally, once they are prepared, they are imaged using an electron microscope, which can take pictures that are 100,000 times more precise than a regular microscope! Usually, this process can create over 1 million gigabytes of images and can take 6 months to achieve. Once the images are manually corrected for some misalignments, you now have a stack of images that you can scroll through like an image. This is an oversimplified summary of the process, and the actual procedure may vary, but this is generally how the neurons are imaged.
However, it’s not finished just yet, since the boundaries between each neuron still need to be determined. Decades ago, humans did this by hand, manually drawing the path of each neuron in every slice and marking where two neurons connected to each other. Eventually, software is used to do it, but even this method is extremely time-consuming and repetitive. Instead, they do this with the help of artificial intelligence. Yes, they use a neural network to map neurons. Since the outlines are not always clear or correct, the AI usually gets stuck, so the neurons get broken down into cubes, then further down into segments to make them more manageable.
In an ideal world, artificial intelligence and neural networks alone can map every single neuron of the brain. But, like with most things, not everything is perfect, so we humans have to correct the AI. The game is crowdsourced, so the results of several players are combined together to make the final correction. To clarify, the AI only splits the neurons into segments, and the players are the ones who “trace” the segments together. Think of it as a 3D jigsaw puzzle, except the puzzle pieces are the segments and the finished product is an entire neuron.
Now that you know what goes behind making the game, let’s describe its gaming aspects. EyeWire features a diverse community with hundreds of thousands of people who signed up. All kinds of people play EyeWire, from students to gamers to zookeepers to even senior citizens! There are even some dedicated players who have been playing since EyeWire started 6 years ago. In the game, you gain points based on your accuracy, speed, and skill. You can get to the top of the leaderboard and earn badges to show off your achievements. There is also a chat and forum for discussions, asking for help, and generally talking about anything. They even host competitions, where you can sometimes get prizes if you perform well enough.
Over the years, EyeWire has made some major contributions, one of which is discovering 6 new types of neurons. Players even got the chance to name each of them! They have also written and published a number of scientific papers, and have been featured by news sites such as Forbes, Nature, Scientific American, and more. Over 2000 neurons have been traced and roughly 95000 hours have been spent playing EyeWire last year.
It’s actually very easy to join Eyewire. All you need is a good laptop/PC with Google Chrome and a good internet connection. Simply visit eyewire.org to find additional information and register for the game, if you have the free time.