Citizen Science in the Unexplored Terrain of the Brain

Aaron Krol at BioITWorld: “The game is simple. On the left-hand side of the screen you see a cube containing a misshapen 3D figure, a bit like a tree branch with a gall infestation. To the right is a razor-thin cross-section of the cube, a grainy image of overlapping gray blobs. Clicking on a blob colors it in, like using the paint bucket tool in MS Paint, while also sending colorful extensions out from the branch to the left. Working your way through 256 of these cross-sections, your job is to extend the branch through the cube, identifying which blobs are continuous with the branch and which are nearby distractions.
It hardly sounds like a game at all, but strange to say, there’s something very compelling about playing EyeWire. Maybe it’s watching the branches grow and fork as you discover new connections. Maybe it’s how quickly you can rack up progress, almost not noticing time go by as you span your branches through cube after cube.
“It draws you in,” says Nikitas Serafetinidis ― or Nseraf, as he’s known in-game. “There’s an unexplained component that makes this game highly addictive.”
Serafetinidis is the world record holder in EyeWire, a game whose players are helping to build a three-dimensional map of brain cells in the retina. The images in EyeWire are in fact photos taken with an electron microscope at the Max Planck Institute of Medical Research in Heidelberg: each one represents a tiny sliver of a mouse’s retina, just 20 nanometers thick. The “blobs” are thin slices of closely adjoined neurons, and the “branch” shows the path of a single cell, which can cross through hundreds of thousands of those images….(More)”