Citizen Science: Can citizens power medical research?

Any citizen can be a scientist. At least, that was the theme of one popular symposium today at the 2014 AAAS conference. It’s the fourth full day of non-stop science here in Chicago, but despite the information deluge many participants perked up for a lively debate following a presentation called “Advances in Citizen Science.”

What is “citizen science”? Although the term has been defined many ways, it broadly refers to the idea that research questions involving enormous data sets can be answered through online crowdsourcing.

In the 21st century, there’s no shortage of scientific data; the problem is processing all that data. For example, the Hubble Telescope generates more than 120 gigabytes of data per week, which is way too much data for the researchers to troll through. However, if researchers put their data up online, people all over the world are willing to spend time doing simple tasks that help answer scientific questions.

Citizen science was first born to answer questions in astronomy. Chris Lintott, one of the godfathers of citizen science, told the audience that he was shocked to learn how much time the average citizen is willing to donate crunching through data. When he first launched a project called Galaxy Zoo, more than 70,000 image classifications were made on the first day. Today, there are more than 1 million volunteers who help identify astronomical images.

At first, citizen scientists were answering questions about the galaxy, but soon they started chipping away at questions about biology. The researchers setting up citizen science communities also started looking for ways to appeal to an even wider population of data crunchers. The solution? Make citizen science more fun through gaming.

Famously, the game Fold It proved that humans are better than computers at guessing how proteins should fold. Millions of people now play this game, and even helped identify a protein causing AIDS in rhesus monkeys that hadn’t been found after 15 years of searching.

EyeWire, citizen science, neuron, brain, retina

EyeWire is a citizen science project that lets users ‘map’ neural pathways in an online game.

Neuroscience is yet another field with too much data and not enough scientists to process that data. Sebastian Seung is an innovator who is harnessing the power of citizen science to understand the brain. While a professor at MIT, Seung created a game called EyeWire, which now has more than 100,000 participants.

Specifically, EyeWire is hoping to answer questions about optical nerves. How does the human eye detect motion? After years of research, neuroscientists still don’t understand precisely how the brain registers motion, one of the most basic functions of mammal cognition. Seung described his game as “a 3D coloring book” in which users trace pathways to map different neural pathways in the brain.

The game’s highly engaged chat community includes both adults and children. One user comment on EyeWire’s messageboard reads: “Last night my mom told me to go to bed and I was like, ‘mom, I’m mapping.’ lol.” During his presentation, Seung discussed some of the young gamers hacking away at neuroscience problems, noting that he gets a kick out of seeing gaming used to foster science and educations.

“I kind of like the idea that this kid is disobeying his or her mom to do neuroscience research,” Seung said during his presentation. “It’s subversive in the right way.”

At first glance, citizen science seems like it could have huge potential outside of research and inside hospitals. It’s possible to imagine using the power of crowdsourcing to find patterns in electronic medical records and to identify health trends. The problem is that the hubble telescope doesn’t mind splashing its photos across the internet, but patients don’t want the world looking at their health records.

At the moment, citizen science remains firmly rooted in research, making the most impact in fields like astronomy and biology. However, with improvements in data security and identify protection, citizen science can one day make a bigger impact in healthcare.

According to Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research, the future of citizen science will “apply machine-learning and decision-making to squeeze more out of our citizen science platforms.”

Sony Salzman

Sony Salzman

    At MedTechBoston, we are sharing stories about cutting-edge medical innovation. As Managing Editor, I help coordinate our coverage of hackathons and company profiles. I also create content, update our social media and scout stories. I'm part of an ambitious group of people hoping to inspire a tech revolution in medical care.

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