This Game Helps Scientists Model Brain Cells

Want to get a little more oomph from your game time? You can turn your spare time into scientific progress with Mozak.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science and the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science created Mozak to help create 3D models of neurons, a task that isn’t particularly well-suited to computers.

The New York Times recently covered Mozak, and explains the plan.

The Allen Institute’s goal of cataloging the structure of neurons, the cells that transmit information throughout the nervous system, could one day help researchers understand the roots of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and their treatment. Neurons come in devilishly complex shapes and staggering quantities — about 100 million and 87 billion in mouse and human brains, both of which players can work on in Mozak.

That is far more than professional neuron analysts at places like the Allen Institute can ever hope to handle. Enlisting novices through a game like “Mozak” helps with the task. But the real goal is to use high-quality neuron reconstructions done by humans — the more the better — to train computers to do the job more accurately than they can now.


Since the New York Times article landed, Mozak’s administrators have reported an “incredible amount of progress,” as more players join. With around 200 daily users, they were able to quadruple the number of reconstructions they were able to achieve with a team of professional analysts. They hope for many more.

There are other opportunities to play games for science, as well. FoldIt shares a creator with Mozak and has players work on predicting and designing protein structures. The Zooniverse has crowd-powered games for several disciplines. And games have started using ResearchKit to gather useful data.

So next time you’re looking for a way to pass the time, remember that Mozak and its ilk are out there, ready to benefit from your time and gaming talents.

[New York Times]
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