A new mobile app developed by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL aims to carry out, on an unprecedented scale, science experiments that could previously only be conducted on small groups of volunteers in the lab. The Great Brain Experiment will look at memory, impulsivity, how we take risks and how well the mind’s eye can see. It will allow the researchers to explore questions that are normally impossible to ask.
The free app is being launched at the start of this year's Brain Awareness Week (11-17 March 2013) and is being supported by the Wellcome Trust. It has been developed as part of Wonder: Art and science on the brain, a wider season of brain-related events organised in partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Barbican in London.
Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging study the function of the brain. Typically, their experiments involve a volunteer lying in an fMRI scanner (which measures levels of activity in the brain through changes in blood flow) while playing a computer game. The number of people that can take part in a study is relatively small, however, and volunteers are usually university students.
By developing an app that allows users to play these same games - but presented in a fun and appealing way - the researchers hope to be able to ask questions on a much larger scale, getting a unique insight into how our brains work and compare against other people's.
Harriet Brown, a PhD student at the Centre and one of the game's developers, explains: "Our app brings 'big data' to neuroscience, promising unprecedented insights into how we think and act, and how people differ from each other.
"The Great Brain Experiment is one of a new generation of neuroscience experiments that 'gamify' data collection and crowdsource it to gain a wider audience. This has the potential to be the largest neuroscience experiment ever conducted, marking a new development in citizen science and allowing us to ask some interesting questions to a wider population than we are usually able to reach."
Although the app is meant to be as appealing as possible, behind it lies serious science intended to address important questions in brain research. There are four games, each asking a question to explore a different facet of the brain: "How good is your memory?", "How impulsive are you?", "What makes you happy?" and "How much can you see?"
"How impulsive are you?" will allow the researchers to see how good we are at controlling ourselves. Can we rein ourselves in at the last minute, or does the response we were planning just come out anyway? Most people will have experienced this in their day-to-day lives, such as eating the chocolate they were saving for later or making a tactless comment; at the extreme end of the spectrum are those people with clinical disorders, such as ADHD. Impulsivity may also have a role in drug addiction.
"How much can you see?" explores a phenomenon known as 'brain blink' - our tendency not to see a second object when it appears soon after a similar object. In the game, the user sees a succession of different images, each of which appears very briefly. For example, in the middle might be two different images of cats; at the end, the user is asked to select the second cat out of a choice of four.
The majority of people will not be able to answer correctly. Little is known about this phenomenon in the general population; how common is the ability to correctly distinguish between the images, are people better at day or at night, and is there a difference in ability between young and old people or men and women?
Dr Rick Adams, also at the Centre, adds: "We wanted something that shows people what neuroscience is really about. It's not all brains in jars or men in white coats. It's actually trying to answer questions all of us are interested in, like 'What makes me happy?' We hope that people enjoy our app, tell their friends and help us answer some important scientific questions along the way."
The Great Brain Experiment is available for free on the iPhone and Android smartphones. It has been jointly developed by Dr Rick Adams, Harriet Brown, Dr Fiona McNab, Dr Robb Rutledge, Peter Smittenaar and Peter Zeidman at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and programmed by Neil Millstone at White Bat Games.