This eerie scene might bring back memories of the computer-generated alien war machines from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds thriller. But what you’re seeing is a computer-generated depiction of a quite different world—the world inside the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. The stilt-legged “creatures” are actually ganglion nerve cells, and what appears to be their long “noses” are fibers that will eventually converge to form the optic nerve that relays visual signals to the brain. The dense, multi-colored mat near the bottom of the image is a region where the ganglia and other types of retinal cells interact to convey visual information.
What I find particularly interesting about this image is that it was produced through the joint efforts of people who played EyeWire, an internet crowdsourcing game developed in the lab of computational neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, now at Princeton University in New Jersey. Seung and his colleagues created EyeWire using a series of high-resolution microscopic images of the mouse retina, which were digitized into 3D cubes containing dense skeins of branching nerve fibers. It’s at this point where the crowdsourcing came in. Online gamers—most of whom aren’t scientists— volunteered for a challenge that involved mapping the 3D structure of individual nerve cells within these 3D cubes. Players literally colored-in the interiors of the cells and progressively traced their long extensions across the image to distinguish them from their neighbors. Sounds easy, but the branches are exceedingly thin and difficult to follow.
The mapping work has progressed nicely thanks to the crowdsourcing efforts of no less than 130,000 volunteers from 145 countries. Since its launch in 2012, EyeWire has mapped over 100 neurons and produced a number of beautiful scientific images, including this example honored in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) BioArt 2014 contest. The game also spawned a scientific publication in the journal Nature, which modeled how the retina responds selectively to objects that move across its field of vision . Listed among the authors on the paper were all the EyeWire gamers who logged on and pitched in!
A winner of an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Seung now wants to put EyeWire to work to create the first complete wiring diagram of the retina. First, he’ll aim to produce a comprehensive inventory of the various cell types in the retina. After that’s done, the challenge will be to figure out how all of these cells interconnect to make vision possible. Good thing he has a crowd to help him do it!
Space-tie wiring specificity supports direction selectivity in the retina. Kim JS, Greene MJ, Zlateski A, Lee K, Richardson M, Turaga SC, Purcaro M, Balkam M, Robinson A, Behabadi BF, Campos M, Denk W, Seung HS, EyeWirers. Nature. 2014 May 15:509(7500):331-336.
Retinal Disease (National Eye Institute/NIH)
Seung Lab (Princeton University, Princeton, NJ)
NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (NIH Common Fund)
BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke