THE BLOG
12/10/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Step One in Fixing the Brain: Understand How It Works

When people hear that I'm a neuroscientist, they ask me tough questions. Will grandpa learn to walk again after his stroke? How can my son overcome his dyslexia? What could have caused my best friend to become schizophrenic? When I can't give satisfying answers, they look disappointed -- and I feel embarrassed. To find better means of fixing the brain, we first need to achieve something more fundamental. We must understand how it works.

Now it's my turn to ask a question to the public: Can you help us succeed? I'm tremendously optimistic about the future of my discipline, yet understanding the brain is so difficult that we neuroscientists need help. You may be surprised by my appeal. Isn't neuroscience an esoteric subject only for people with advanced degrees?

You can imagine the brain as an enchanted forest of 100 billion trees, because neurons sprout delicate branches. The forest is so vast that we neuroscientists can never explore it all by ourselves. We need help from the public. To be an explorer, no advanced degree is necessary. It just takes curiosity, sharp eyes, and a love for the beauty of neurons.

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Santiago Ramon y Cajal (Credit: Alamy)

The greatest explorer of the mind's jungle was Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who spent his life gazing at the nervous system through his microscope, and recording the forms of neurons in beautiful drawings. The retina, the sheet of neural tissue at the back of the eye, was one of his favorites. There Cajal saw photoreceptors, the cells that sense light. And there were many other cells with beautiful intertwining branches. Cajal attempted to classify these neurons into types based on their shapes, much as a botanist tried to classify the trees of a forest into different species. In 1906, Cajal shared the Nobel Prize for his pioneering research. But he died with his project unfinished. Working singlehandedly, he could never triumph over the retina.

Over a century has passed. Would Cajal be impressed to see how far we've come? He might be disappointed, because we still don't know how many types of neurons there are in the retina. We know that the neurons are connected to each other through synapses, but we don't know the rules that govern which types are connected to which types. Our ignorance of such basic facts has made it difficult to answer the deeper questions. What functions do retinal neurons play in visual perception? And how can we fix the retina if it malfunctions?

For the first time, we have the opportunity to finish what Cajal started, because my laboratory at MIT has created EyeWire. This online portal is like a 3D coloring book, the pages of which are images of the retina. You help the computer color between the lines, tracing out the branches of neurons. Now anyone, anywhere, can be a modern-day Cajal by mapping neurons and their connections by playing an online coloring game.

If we can map the retina, that will help us understand how it functions in vision, as well as devise new ways of repairing its malfunctions. And if we can really figure out the retina, perhaps we will have a shot at figuring out the vastly more complicated brain.

Please join the greatest adventure of our time, the quest to map the brain's connections, at www.eyewire.org.

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