Online 'brain game' helping Allen Institute scientists map human brain

An online game is helping scientists at the University of Washington and Allen Institute map the human brain. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - Marilyn Watt loves puzzles, old fashioned or online games. The 64-year-old retired occupational therapist now sits at her computer playing a new online video game that will benefit all of us.

“I love it, it’s fun and its meaningful,” said Marilyn.

Using a computer mouse, she is finding patterns of tiny dots in a black and white scan of a human neuron, taken by an electronic microscope.

She draws a line between the dots, that in her eyes, appear to form a connection and hits 'submit.'

“So this is a little mystery, I get to help find which are the lines coming from those axons,” said Marilyn.

She’s playing Mozak, an innovative way to crowdsource what is a painstaking task for neuroscientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science: map the 86 billion neurons that make up the human brain.

Students and faculty at the University of Washington Center for Game Science, in a partnership with the Allen Institute, developed the game that enables anyone - like Marilyn - to complete a three-dimensional reconstruction of a neurons in the brain of people and animals.

Since Mozak launched in November, developers at the UW say about 200 people a day have been playing Mozak, which has allowed Allen Institute neuroscientists to reconstruct neurons 3.6 times faster than previous methods.

Zoran Popovic, the director of the Center for Game Science said players have outperformed computers, when it comes to tracing the pathways of a neuron.

“People are really good at looking at the space, seeing how these dots seem to follow a particular path - even though there's a lot of stuff missing in between,” said Popovic.

He said Mozak players have been able to produce neuron reconstructions that are 70 to 90 percent accurate compared to 10 to 20 percent by computers.

“Humans can recognize patterns better,” said Popovic, who predicts 100 percent accuracy once computers and human tracings are eventually mixed together.

Another unexpected result is how good the game players have become in finding verifiable connections within a neuron.

“Novices who have become experts through the game have found more things that experts didn't even find,” said Popovic.

The reconstructions made by the game players will help in the search for cures of various brain diseases.

Marilyn knows that her game playing is not just for her enjoyment. She has a sense of pride the connections she’s finding in Mozak is contributing to the greater good.

“I seem to score pretty well and that feels really good,” said Marilyn.

With 86 billion neurons in the human brain, Marilyn has a lot of points in her future.

Neuroscientists do verify the mappings of game players. The game is free and open to anyone.

To find out more about Mozak - click here.

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