Be a Citizen Scientist!
Imagine if you were tasked with creating a 3D model of an orange, without ever knowing what one looks like. To construct the model you are given 50 images, each one a snapshot of a single slice …in all, 50 parallel, equal thickness slices. Each image would delineate or show the outline of the various parts: skin, the juicy fruit, seeds and so on. If you then “colored in” outlined shapes, you would start to recognize continuity between successive layers or images, gradually producing a 3D model of an orange.
This process of imaging is exactly what a neuroscientist, Sebastian Seung set out to do with successive slices of mouse retina. Image processing algorithms are used to recognize shapes that are continuous between successive layers. In so doing, his lab at Princeton University has been building 3D models of neurons (nerve cells), like the image seen above. And not just isolated neurons, but continuous groups of them.
This is where you and your child comes in. The computer image processing is not perfect and thousands of citizen scientists have contributed to correcting and filling in the connections and completing the 3D models, neuron by neuron. Along the way, new neuron types have been discovered! Gradually neuroscientists are piecing together not only a better understanding of how we see, but how we understand, what we see. Amazingly, this begins at the retina.
How do you get involved? Visit Eyewire.org. There you can explore and start playing. There is an excellent self-guided tutorial to get you started. Before you know it, you will begin to recognize the shapes that make up parts of a neuron, in ways that the computer processing cannot.
PS This is a good YouTube place to start: EyeWire Tutorials
Fun tip: EyeWire has a leader board so your children can team up with friends remotely.
Fun fact: Mouse retina is similar to human retina, that thin layer of tissue lining the inside back, curved wall of our eyeballs, turning focused images into signals for recognition and understanding.