Archive for April 27th, 2012

Ultimate Brain Quest

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Ever heard of the “Ultimate Brain Quest” project? It is a project initiated at the MIT by Sebastien Seung aiming at creating a complete map of the neuron connections in a human brain. For the time being it is focussing on a rat brain but do not underestimate the challenge, even at a rat brain level.

A single cubic millimeter of brain material contains some 100,000 neurons and about 1 billion connections! Examining this ball of twine would require an (estimated) hundred thousands person-years. So what can be done, given the fact that so far a completely automatic way for unraveling these connections has not been found?

Researchers at the MIT have decided to leverage on the willingness of thousands, and they hope soon millions of people, to participate in the quest and have developed an on line tool, eye wire, that let people analyze the tiny slices of brain (1/1000 of a hair thickness) placed on the website and color the slices one after the other thus creating the image of a neuron connection. This process, difficult to be performed by a machine, is reasonably easy for the human eye and has already produced results.

A neuron connection singled out through crowd sourcing in eye wire

There are of course plenty of wonders in this project, a lot of technology and plenty of debate if even assuming that a complete mapping of a human brain will ever be feasible we may end up with plenty of data (storing the data about a single cubic mm of brain matter requires about 1 PB, a complete human brain would then approach 1ZB of storage!) but very little meaning (by the way, how can we be sure that the wiring of one brain is basically the representative for all other brains?). If you like to explore these issues you may want to read Connectome, by Sebastien Seung. In the book he makes it clear that the idea is to derive meaning from the observation of the wiring and use this meaning to guide in the understanding of the brain. At that point the wiring can become (almost) irrelevant and researchers could focus on the semantics of the brain.

The reason for my post on this subject, however, is because of the use of crowd sourcing that is being made. The web is really providing us with a tremendous intelligence-power ready to be tapped. And some researchers are already starting to leverage that. As  some city planners are doing, asking people to tell what is good and what is wrong as they move around the city, as politicians are starting to do to prepare a legislation program, as doctors are doing to become aware of potential epidemics or dangerous substances…

The web, and each of us, is changing the world.