Using gaming to enhance neuroscience

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NeuroscienceI recently looked at the growing market for video games that help to deliver a social good, or improve society in someway.  One of the more interesting examples of this genre is the browser based game EyeWire.

EyeWire is an online game that aims to improve our understanding of the brain.  Players have to map connections between retinal neurons by colouring in three dimensional slices of the brain.  As with most games, the better you do, the more points you score and the higher up the leader board you climb.  What marks the game out as different however is that the data you produce via your gameplay is actually being used by scientists to further understand the brain.

EyeWire, which emerged from MIT, attempts to gamify the kind of research that brain scientists are doing every day.  The problem with the lab based approach however is that they often lack the manpower to do their job effectively.  It can take around 50 hours of lab work to reconstruct a single neuron.  There are 85 billion neurons, so you can see the scale of the problem.

Hence the launch of EyeWire.  Since it was launched in December, more than 70,000 people have played it, and between them they have coloured over 1 million 3D neuron cubes, which in turn has resulted in 26 whole cells being mapped.

“It takes players about three minutes on average to complete a cube,” says Amy Robinson, creative director of EyeWire, “So they’ve spent an equivalent of six years of time on EyeWire since the launch.”

Obviously that’s still a relatively small number, but the EyeWire team are emphasising accuracy, and hopefully as more people play the game, these figures will rise.

To achieve that however is not always easy.  There is a difficult trade off between making a game that’s scientifically valuable but also addictive enough to get players coming back.  It’s a challenge that Robinson is still battling with.

“We haven’t done the best job of making it a viral game interface,” Robinson admits.

One possibility is to make the game open source and ask the gaming community to improve it for them.  Another is to develop a multi-player mode that will help turn the game into an online community.

”These are the kinds of things we now have to consider when we’re doing science,” she says, referring to the intricacies of game design. “Because, you know, our lab depends on these players. We can’t do our research if they’re not playing.”

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