Video games have been an important part of my life since I was a kid. I think I remember the first time I saw one, the Nintendo Game & Watch Super Mario Bros game, which must have been in the 1980’s. Since then, I’ve never stopped playing video games, with a particular fondness for the Nintendo brand (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past remains my favorite). Video games are also the focus of scientific research, in general tackling the question of the bad things that they do to our children’s brains (I’ll leave it to Google to provide a handful of links for you), or more rarely, but perhaps more scientifically, the good things they do to our children’s brains (and everybody’s, really). But what I’d like to briefly touch on here is how video games can be used as tools to advance research in neuroscience; means as opposed to ends.
You might have heard of EyeWire in recent news: this game, put together by Sebastian Seung and his laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts you in the boots of a neuron-tracker. Seung’s team here takes advantage of the abilities of humans to recognize objects in patterns and perceptually “close” shapes based on incomplete delineations of their edges. So far, we still have the upper hand over computers at these tasks. The task–track the spaghetti-like processes of a single neuron through stacks upon stacks of gray-scale electron microscopy slices of a mouse’s retina–seems to fulfill the very definition of tedium. However, thanks to a very well-thought and seamless interface (the game plays through a standard Internet browser), “filling out” your neuron’s axons and dendrites is easy, strangely captivating, even fun. Not Legend of Zelda levels of fun, perhaps, but definitely better than your one-billionth session of Minesweeper.
But beyond the fun that EyeWire may bring you, there is the rewarding feeling that you are genuinely helping neuroscience progress. Using the patient work (or play) of thousands of volunteers, Seung’s team was able to reconstruct dozens of a particular type of retinal neuron, called starburst amacrine cells, and discover a unique wiring pattern that would afford the retinal circuit the ability to selectively detect motion in a given direction. You can read much more about it on the project’s own blog. The findings were published in the scientific journal Nature, with the unusual mention of “The EyeWirers” as the last author, the much-coveted spot traditionally reserved to the supervising member of the research team.
Perhaps less groundbreaking in size, but no less significant in terms of the results obtained, the study performed by the group of Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California in Los Angeles, asked whether human memory could be improved through brain stimulation. Fried’s laboratory is exceptional in that it focuses on studying the human brain’s function by recording its electrical activity from a unique vantage point: electrodes placed in the skull, directly touching the brain.
Such an invasive procedure is sometimes necessary in patients who suffer from epilepsy that can’t be controlled by medication alone: surgical removal of the part of the brain that causes the seizures might bring relief. Of course, physicians must first ascertain that the seizures do in fact originate in a circumscribed brain region, and that this brain region is not crucial for indispensable functions such as motor control or language. Hence the need for intracranial electrodes: recording seizures from within the brain allows pinpointing their origin, while injecting electrical current through the electrodes transiently alters the function of the brain region around it. If the patient briefly loses control over his arm or becomes temporarily unable to speak, the physicians mark this area as eloquent cortex that must be left undamaged during the surgery.
Fried’s team here focused on spatial memory, the ability of making a mental map of one’s environment in order to better navigate through it. There is very strong evidence from research in animal models that spatial memory involves regions of the brain called the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, which in humans lie in the medial part of the temporal lobe and often cause seizures. The researchers had patients perform a spatial navigation task while they intermittently simulated their entorhinal cortex.
This is where video games enter the picture: the spatial navigation task consisted of virtual 3D city blocks with distinctive store fronts, rendered on a computer screen. The patients’ initial position within those streets was picked at random, and their task (their mission, in video game parlance) was to walk back to this or that store. Now, one could argue that practically every video game involves some degree of spatial navigation, as long as the action is not confined to a single static screen (think Super Mario Bros not Tetris). But the task used by the researchers here specifically made me think of two iconic games: Crazy Taxi, where you had to pick passengers in your shiny yellow cab (a convertible… so much for realism) and drop them at the other end of town within a time limit; and of course the Grand Theft Auto series, in which you generally play a gangster whose idea of public transportation is breaking into any car they like (including cabs, which triggers a mini game almost identical to Crazy Taxi!). What’s great about this task design is that it perfectly meets the needs of the researchers while being at least somewhat entertaining and challenging for the participants.
Here, the results of the experiment were perhaps even more stunning than the task design: the patients were better at learning how to navigate in novel environments when they received entorhinal stimulation. In their publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors framed these results within the context of the memory loss that is a hallmark of many brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. One cannot help but think, however, of the implications of this research for improving brain function over its normal limits in healthy people.
What these two examples share, and what makes them useful for neuroscientists, is what has been termed gamification: the use of game concepts and mechanisms in non-game contexts. Among the likely advantages of gamification are the improved engagement of participants and the multiple measures of participant performance it can provide. I expect that examples of gamification in neuroscience research will become more and more frequent in the near future.
Kim, J., Greene, M., Zlateski, A., Lee, K., Richardson, M., Turaga, S., Purcaro, M., Balkam, M., Robinson, A., Behabadi, B., Campos, M., Denk, W., & Seung, H. (2014). Space–time wiring specificity supports direction selectivity in the retina Nature, 509 (7500), 331-336 DOI: 10.1038/nature13240
Suthana, N., Haneef, Z., Stern, J., Mukamel, R., Behnke, E., Knowlton, B., & Fried, I. (2012). Memory Enhancement and Deep-Brain Stimulation of the Entorhinal Area New England Journal of Medicine, 366 (6), 502-510 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1107212