BigNeuron Project Aims to Untangle Brain Cell Structure

Brain researchers are turning to big data and collaborative computing to try to crack one of the big questions of neuroscience: Can the shape of a neuron reveal how well it's working? The BigNeuron project is spearheaded by the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, but it brings together institutes around the world to focus their efforts on the computational challenge.

"We are 'bench-testing' many different algorithms, comparing how each of them handles very large-scale, publicly available 3-D neuron image datasets," BigNeuron lead organizer Hanchuan Peng said in a news release.

Each of the tens of billions of neurons in your brain is like a tree with thousands of ultra-thin branches that connect to other neurons. Those interconnections can be strengthened by mental stimulation — or weakened by inactivity or diseases such as Alzheimer's. Is it possible to gauge the health of an individual neuron just by looking at it? During a series of hackathons and workshops, experts will compare the performance of a wide range of image-analysis algorithms, created by scientists as well as software coders.

"We should be able to look within an aging brain and go, 'Wow, that's why that person is so sharp and sprightly. Their neuron in this part of their brain looks exactly the same as a 20-year-old's,'" Jane Roskams, the Allen Institute's executive director for strategy and alliances, told NPR.

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— Alan Boyle