EyeWire -Now you can help scientists discover how the eye sees the world and have fun doing it.

The brain is the most complex structure known to man. There are almost 100 billion nerve cells in the brain, each with up to a thousand connections to other nerve cells. That means there are over a trillion connections in the human brain.

The holy grail of brain research is to map something called the “Connectome” ( see The Human Connectome Project). The connectome is the complete map of all the connections in the brain. Mapping the connectome would give us an understanding of the brain that would allow us to find the causes of many neurologic and psychiatric disorders just like the human genome project and mapping of the chromosomes is providing scientists with the tools to uncover the genetic causes behind many diseases.

While the ultimate goal is to map the human brain connectome, we need to start with something a little less complex. Mapping the nerve connections in the retina will be an important first step in understanding the more complex connections of the brain itself and will also help us better understand diseases of the eye.

Until recently it was thought that the thin layer of nerve tissue at the back of the eye known as the retina had just one job, to sense light coming into the eye and send those signals on to the brain. It was thought that the brain did all the processing to turn the signals form the eye into the final image that we experience as sight. It is now known that the retina is not just a sensor but also does some of the image processing, sort of like a small additional brain. It processes some of the information before it is sent on to our big brain to make the final image. Scientists have discovered for example that the eye has circuitry which is capable of detecting motion before the signal is even sent to the brain. Understanding how the eye processes information and how all the connections in the retina work is an important first step to understanding the larger connectome of the brain itself.

Now everyone can make a contribution to this important area of science and have fun doing it by playing a game at Eyewire.org. The game designed by scientists at MIT is like a 3D puzzle. The game takes advantage of the human brain's strengths. Despite all the advances in computer technology, humans are still much better at detecting certain types of patterns and the game takes advantage of that skill. In a bit of an ironic twist, by working through the puzzle humans become the eyes of the computer so the computer can figure out how our eyes work.

Eyewire has been designed to be somewhat social as well. If you like, you can participate in competitions (this part is completely optional) and they even hold a weekly online happy hour during which you can chat with other participants although it is strictly BYOB and optional as well. So if you are interested in science, would like to contribute to an important project that may help expand our understanding of our own brain, help cure diseases and have fun while doing it check out Eyewire.

For more information about Eyewire.org and about the game you can view the video below or go to http://blog.eyewire.org/about/

Michael Melgar

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