ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Brain researchers are joining forces with computer programmers to tackle a big challenge in neuroscience. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports the goal is to teach computers how to tell healthy brain cells from those damaged by Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: A healthy neuron looks like a healthy tree. It has a strong trunk and lots of branches. But a brain disease can change all that.
JANE ROSKAMS: Sick neurons have a withered appearance, much like a sick plant has a withered appearance.
HAMILTON: Jane Roskams is with the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. She says highly-trained scientists with high-tech microscopes can answer lots of questions about a neuron just by studying its shape.
ROSKAMS: Is a neuron healthy? What kind of a neuron is it? Is a neuron sick? What is wrong with it?
HAMILTON: In theory, a computer could answer these questions more quickly and reliably and repeat the process on many thousands of neurons. But programmers are still struggling to make that happen, so the Allen Institute is leading an effort called BigNeuron to improve the way a neuron's complex three-dimensional shape is captured and then analyzed by computer programs. Roskam says the effort includes a series of hackathons where programmers and brain scientists get together for a marathon session of testing computer algorithms that assess neurons.
ROSKAMS: So we have 15 to 20 people in a room. They've each got their pet algorithm, and they're kind of racing each other.
HAMILTON: The first hackathon took place in Beijing two weeks ago. Others will be held in the U.S. and the U.K. At each event, participants are given access to supercomputers and high-quality images of many different kinds of neurons. The goal is to find the best algorithms. And Roskams says these could come from people who know more about math and pattern recognition than they do about brains.
ROSKAMS: We have incredibly talented young people who can code and program and begin to give meaning to some of the pictures that we've been taking in the 3-D environment in a way that many neuroscientists can't even begin to imagine doing.
HAMILTON: The algorithms that emerge will be shared with scientists and even students around the world. Roskams says giving more people the ability to study neurons could help answer fundamental questions, like how the shape of a neuron changes throughout a person's lifetime.
ROSKAMS: We should be able to then 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.
HAMILTON: Roskams says today, analyzing the complex shape of a neuron often requires a supercomputer. But she says one long-term goal of BigNeuron is to create programs that a high school student could use on a laptop computer. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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