With the help of a quarter-million video game players, Princeton researchers have created and shared detailed maps of more than 1,000 neurons — and they’re just getting started.
“Working with Eyewirers around the world, we’ve made a digital museum that shows off the intricate beauty of the retina’s neural circuits,” said Sebastian Seung, the Evnin Professor in Neuroscience and a professor of computer science and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI). The related paper is publishing May 17 in the journal Cell.
Seung is unveiling the Eyewire Museum, an interactive archive of neurons available to the general public and neuroscientists around the world, including the hundreds of researchers involved in the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.
“This interactive viewer is a huge asset for these larger collaborations, especially among people who are not physically in the same lab,” said Amy Robinson Sterling, a crowdsourcing specialist with PNI and the executive director of Eyewire, the online gaming platform for the citizen scientists who have created this data set.
“This museum is something like a brain atlas,” said Alexander Bae, a graduate student in electrical engineering and one of four co-first authors on the paper. “Previous brain atlases didn’t have a function where you could visualize by individual cell, or a subset of cells, and interact with them. Another novelty: Not only do we have the morphology of each cell, but we also have the functional data, too.”
The neural maps were developed by Eyewirers, members of an online community of video game players who have devoted hundreds of thousands of hours to painstakingly piecing together these neural cells, using data from a mouse retina gathered in 2009.
Eyewire pairs machine learning with gamers who trace the twisting and branching paths of each neuron. Humans are better at visually identifying the patterns of neurons, so every player’s moves are recorded and checked against each other by advanced players and Eyewire staffers, as well as by software that is improving its own pattern recognition skills.
Since Eyewire’s launch in 2012, more than 265,000 people have signed onto the game... resulting in the mapping of more than 3,000 neural cells, of which about a thousand are displayed in the museum.
Every cell is reviewed by between 5 and 25 gamers before it is accepted into the system as complete.
“Back in the early years it took weeks to finish a single cell,” said Sterling. “Now players complete multiple neurons per day.” The Eyewire user experience stays focused on the larger mission — “For science!” is a common refrain — but it also replicates a typical gaming environment, with achievement badges, a chat feature to connect with other players and technical support, and the ability to unlock privileges with increasing skill.
By turning a time-intensive research problem into an interactive game, Princeton neuroscientist Sebastian Seung has built an unprecedented data set of neurons, which he is now turning over to the public via the Eyewire Museum. These 17 retinal neurons, mapped by Eyewire gamers, include ganglion cell types in blue and green and amacrine cells in yellow and red. Credit: Alex Norton, Eyewire
The researchers have started by tackling Eyewire-mapped ganglion cells from the retina of a mouse.
The retina grows from the same embryonic tissue as the brain, and while much simpler than the brain, it is still surprisingly complex, Turner said.
The researchers’ fundamental question is identifying exactly how the retina works, said Bae.
“Why the ganglion cells of the eye?” asked Shang Mu, an associate research scholar in PNI and fellow first author. “Because they’re the connection between the retina and the brain. They’re the only cell class that go back into the brain.”
Using Eyewire-produced maps of 396 ganglion cells, the researchers in Seung’s lab successfully classified these cells more thoroughly than has ever been done before.
“The number of different cell types was a surprise,” said Mu. “Just a few years ago, people thought there were only 15 to 20 ganglion cell types, but we found more than 35 — we estimate between 35 and 50 types.”
Of those, six appear to be novel, in that the researchers could not find any matching descriptions in a literature search.