Retinal ganglion cell tracing in Eyewire

In order to make serial section electron microscopy neurite reconstruction truly high-throughput, it will be essential to find a way to automate the image recognition component. Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, it’s quite difficult to segment and recognize patterns in electron microscopy images.

Inspired by other citizen science approaches, Sebastian Seung & co have come up with the possibly ingenious idea of enlisting the help of the everyman in this task. Their website is called Eyewire. It challenges users to reconstruct ganglion cells from electron microscopic images in the retina.

The images are stained in their cell membranes via a dye to create contrast. In theory, this contrast allows machines and humans to distinguish precisely where the neurite travels. In practice, the dye can invade to organelles, creating noise, or it can stain the cell membrane incompletely, creating artifacts.

Or, the machine learning algorithm might just miss it, because of some sort of bias, like missing boundaries that are outside of its field of view. This is where you come in. Your task is to move from slide to slide and pick out the regions that the algorithm misses.

I just opened up the game and in the first section I was assigned, I came upon this error. Here’s the first slide, which, as you can see, is completely filled in within its stained cell membrane boundaries:

And here’s the next image stack up:

As you can see, but for whatever reason the ML algorithm cannot, there is a hole in the second image which should be filled in. Eyewire allows you to do this yourself,

by filling the hole in with the light teal.

Sometimes the missing holes are more consequential. Filling in some holes means that whole undiscovered branches of a neurite can be found.

In a very nice feature, the algorithm automatically propagates your changes to the rest of the image stacks, so that you don’t have to do so manually.

When you have enough people doing this, the results can be pretty interesting. For example, here is the current reconstructed version of cell #6:

How would you go about quantifying the branching neurites of this neuron and what can you learn from its structure about how it works? These are the kinds of questions that we’ll be able to address as we collect more of these.

Sebastian Seung calls the game “meditative.” In the hours I’ve played so far (my account name is porejide), I have found it quite fun when it’s working fast and I can zoom through the stacks.

On the other hand, at times the internet connection at my house couldn’t really keep up, leading to some lag, which caused me to experience a sensation that I would not call meditative. But perhaps that’s just the fault of my internet connection.

One angle that I especially appreciate is the friendly competition between users. After you fill in a set of image stacks, the game rewards you with a number of points that is meant to be proportional to what you accomplished.

I have no small amount of pride in reporting that yesterday I played well enough (and for long enough) to reach #2 in points for the day, with 981 points, although xo3k was way ahead of me with 3450. As I was playing I could see user vienna717 was gaining ground on me quickly, which gave me the competitive juices I needed to go faster.

This is a great infrastructure, and has the potential to get even more fun if they gamify it further. For example, perhaps users could join teams with other people and play for a glory greater than the self.

This all sounds dandy, but what if you don’t care about retinal ganglion cells? Frankly, I don’t care that much myself. To the best of my understanding, the main thrust of the game is not to build the 3d maps of these ganglion cells, although that will be informative.

Rather, the idea is to provide a huge training set for machine learning algorithms, so that they can learn to better incorporate the insights of humans. This will scale much better than having humans do it, and will in theory allow us to reconstruct neural connections on much larger scales.

This, in turn, will allow us to rigorously test some of the most fundamental questions in neuroscience.

There is no guarantee that Seung & co’s approach will actually get us there, and even if it does, it will take a lot of time and effort. In the meantime, I’ll see you on the leaderboard!