An Eye for the Eye: Mapping Retinal Neurons with the Crowd

If you’ve ever had a close encounter with a lamppost, you’ll know that the eye can sometimes be tricked. After all, considering how complicated the eye is, you may think it would fail us more frequently.

You may recall from your high school biology classes that light enters the eye through the pupil and is converted into nerve signals, which are then transmitted to your brain, via photoreceptive cells called rods and cones. Vision is caused by a photoreceptor in the eye, which converts light energy into electrical energy, then transmits it to the brain via the optic nerve. The individual’s brain then identifies the face as familiar, and a list of words associated with that face is generated.

The retina, which is located at the back of the eye, has 5 different sorts of neurons (although some researchers believe there could be as many as 60) and millions of each form in each eye. It’s difficult to comprehend how everything works with 100 billion neurons in the brain as a whole.

Here’s looking at you Crowd

A team from MIT (who must have a few neurons leftover) has launched the EyeWire project, despite these enormous quantities. The project uses some creative approaches to map the mind-bogglingly complex network of neurons in the retina.

They began by cross-sectioning a flatworm’s retinal neurons, and then developed an elaborate image processing technique that generated a three-dimensional model of the neural network from two-dimensional pictures.

To ensure the fidelity of the 3D models they required, they needed something far more sophisticated than the algorithm. Realizing that the subject of their study was most likely the best tool for the job, the group dispersed images into small blocks and posted them on social media for people to check by sight.

It’s a bit like an optical puzzle in that regard. The player traces a coloured neuron through a succession of 2D pictures as it weaves and divides among clusters of seemingly identical blobs. The objective is to fill in any color that is vacant on the neuron.

It appears to be a tough job at first, but it soon becomes almost instinctive. It feels amazing to discover a new branch and have it appear on the 3D window in the corner of your screen after several minutes of staring at a series of blobs.

The best competitors will be placed on the competition leader board. Maintaining a certain position or rising up the ranks should provide enough motivation for individuals to continue returning.

The Future Looks Bright

Eyewire is also assisting us in better understanding the eye’s nervous system, as well as providing fun for its members. The study may lead to treatments for illnesses such as epilepsy and alternative ways to cure and prevent other sorts of blindness.

The technique is already being used on the rest of the brain’s neurons in “Wired Differently,” a program that may lead to improved understanding and therapies for disorders like autism and schizophrenia. Perhaps we’ll ever be able to understand the brain well enough to avoid the hilarious but debilitating problem of walking into glass doors.

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