Snapshots of Life: A Colorful Look Inside the Retina

Mapping neurons in the retina

Credit: Amy Robinson, Alex Norton, William Silversmith, Jinseop Kim, Kisuk Lee, Aleks Zlasteski, Matt Green, Matthew Balkam, Rachel Prentki, Marissa Sorek, Celia David, Devon Jones, and Doug Bland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Sebastian Seung, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

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.

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Epilepsy Research Benefits from the Crowd

BrainFor millions of people with epilepsy, life comes with too many restrictions. If they just had a reliable way to predict when their next seizure will come, they could have a chance at leading more independent and productive lives.

That’s why it is so encouraging to hear that researchers have developed a new algorithm that can predict the onset of a seizure correctly 82 percent of the time. Until recently, the best algorithm was hardly better than flipping a coin, leading some to speculate that seizures are random neurological events that can’t be predicted at all. But the latest leap forward shows that seizures certainly can be predicted, and our research efforts are headed in the right direction to make them even more predictable. The other big news is how this new algorithm was developed: it’s the product of a crowdsourcing competition.

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Crowdsourcing Therapeutic Molecules for Drug Discovery

An assortment of pills, vials, and bottles containing liquid, against white background

Caption: The Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules pilot program matches researchers with pharmaceutical compounds to explore new treatments for patients

Developing a drug takes time and money: on the average, around 14 years and $2 billion or more. More than 95 percent of the drugs fail during development. Even those that go all the way to large and expensive clinical trials in humans frequently don’t make the cut—perhaps because they weren’t quite as effective as they were supposed to be, had undesirable side effects, or didn’t align with the developer’s business priorities. But some of these compounds may have surprising therapeutic properties that have not yet been fully exploited. It would be a wasted opportunity not to take another look at them and test them for effectiveness in other conditions.

For that reason, our National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), with financial support from the NIH Common Fund, launched a pilot program to discover new therapeutic uses for existing molecules. Today we are awarding $12.7 million to nine academic institutions to reexamine a collection of compounds developed by major pharmaceutical companies and test them as treatments for diseases, both common and rare: from alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease to Duchenne muscular dystrophy and schizophrenia. Continue reading