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Wanna Play? Computer Gamers Help Push Frontier Of Brain Research : NPR

Posted on by Brandon Klein

People can get pretty addicted to computer games. By some estimates, residents of planet Earth spend 3 billion hours per week playing them. Now some scientists are hoping to make use of all that human capital and harness it for a good cause.

Right now I'm at the novice level of a game called EyeWire, trying to color in a nerve cell in a cartoon drawing of a slice of tissue. EyeWire is designed to solve a real science problem — it aims to chart the billions of nerve connections in the brain.

“ 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.

- Sebastian Seung, neuroscientist, MIT

"There's no way the professional scientists alone can analyze all of that," says Sebastian Seung, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We need people to help us."

Seung thinks understanding all those connections is key to understanding how the brain works. He says you can imagine the brain as a huge jungle of entangled branches of neurons.

"We need an army of people to go out and explore that jungle," he says. "Scientists — professional scientists — are too few in number to do that all by themselves, so why not engage the public? It's a great adventure. What could be more exciting than exploring the brain? [It's] much more exciting than any artificial video game."

At least, Seung hopes that's what people will think. But before he tackles the human brain, Seung wants to explore a simpler collection of cells: the ones in the backs of the eyes of mice. So he and his colleagues created EyeWire, which looks at the neural connections in the eye. So far, about 35,000 people have registered with eyewire.org to play.