A Video Game With a Lot of Nerve

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A new online game is designed to trace neurons in the brain. It is designed to clarify the types of neurons found in the brain and the connections between them. It is, at the same time, blurring the lines between gaming and scientific discovery. 

The game is called "Mozak" - the word for the brain in Serbo-Croatian. It is an online game where the task is to follow a neuron with your computer mouse, tracing it as you go. That may not sound appealing, but, tracing a line to soft music is both enjoyable and slightly addictive. 

The game was created by the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Center for Game Science. Like most online games in the citizen science sphere (those that anyone can play and, in doing so, make a contribution to science) it is free to play and increasing in popularity. There have been 2,500 players since its release last November.

But, it is not just fun. It is also advancing science in a way that can only be done through this unique online platform. 

Computers are better at certain tasks than humans and vice versa. In order to do something as complex as defining the different types of neurons that are in the human brain - of which there are 80-90 billion - we need to harness the talents of both computers and humans.

Mozak presents a 3-D image of an individual neuron inside a brain on the screen. The human eye and brain are far better than computers at resolving and tracing objects in 3 dimensions. As someone is tracing, there are judgement calls to be made about fuzzy lines or predictions as to what two spots are connected.

The neuron traces that are done by Mozak's citizen scientists, which are of various regions of the brains of different organisms, allow researchers to harness the necessary information to learn more about the brain. 

Why do they need the traces to learn about the brain? From their website: 

Neurons are programmed to have a particular form that can grow in a more elaborate way as they become stimulated and interconnect more highly with other neurons. If this does not happen, then a child could develop a learning disorder (like autism) in the circuit that is most affected. Similarly, if a problem develops in a circuit in adulthood it could manifest in a neuropsychiatric or neurodegenerative disorder that we might be able to diagnose better If we understand how it changes brain structure. With sufficient understanding of how ‘normal’ neurons should appear in different circuits, we will be better able to understand the problems that develop in different brain diseases — and know what we are trying to restore when we attempt a cure.

Like all scientific endeavors, Mozak is somewhat tedious and will take time to collect enough data to yield information. But, if you like to color, trace, or just do things on your computer that don't require too much thought - take a look at Mozak and be a part of the uncovering of how the brain works. It's a lot better way to spend your time in front of a screen than, say, playing Candy Crush.