New game speeds up neuroscience research process

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A game developed by the University of Washington (UW) Center for Game Science in partnership with the Allen Institute for Brain Science enables citizen scientists to produce complete, three-dimensional reconstructions of neurons from different regions of the brain in animals and people.

With the game, known as Mozak, which was launched in November, novice players numbering roughly 200 a day and Allen Institute neuroscientists have been able to reconstruct neurons 3.6 times faster than previous methods.

The players have outperformed computers at tracing the complicated shapes of neurons. They can produce reconstructions that are 70 to 90 percent complete, compared to roughly 10 to 20 percent for the most effective computer-generated reconstructions.

Mozak shows players a magnified volumetric image of a neuron, which a key type of brain cell that transmits information throughout the nervous system, and asks the viewer to trace or draw its visible branches, which can also appear as disconnected dots in more challenging areas of data.

Many neurons have delicate and highly branched structures that human eyes can distinguish far better than computers alone.

People also tend to be much better at inferring the likely detailed structure from faint and sometimes discontinuous data. Yet computers are better at performing tedious tasks that can take humans a long time and are faster at reconstructing from clear and continuous data. Mozak brings together people and computing in a new way, to solve this enormous problem together.

“This is not a story about people beating computers because people are using subsets of these computational tools,” said Center for Game Science director Zoran Popovic, a professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

“This is about leveraging the things that computers can do well and the things that people do really well when they’re trained, forming a symbiotic superpower capable of solving unsolved challenges in science.”

The creation of Mozak was inspired partly by the growing needs for analyzing data generated by global projects like the BRAIN initiative, said neuroscientist Jane Roskams, who served on the BRAIN advisory working group.

Until recently, neuroscience labs were doing well to trace about one neuron a week, said Stephen Smith, senior investigator for the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Mozak can speed that progress, but fully understanding neural networks will require tracing many thousands of neurons. ? PNA/Xinhua

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