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IBM Blue Brain project: Unlocking the brain's secrets

IBM's Blue Brain project to help unravel the mysteries of the human brain


19 June, 2005: The human brain has unlocked many of nature's secrets, but the secrets of the brain itself have remained elusive to scientists. Decades of probing into the brain's functioning hasn't yet given scientists a full grasp of the way the brain functions or its circuitry.

The Blue Brain project may be the answer we are looking for. A new initiative by scientists at the Brain Mind Institute at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and IBM engineers aims to unlock the secrets of the brain, not by lab experiments, but by using the brute power of a supercomputer.

The Blue Brain Project will run simulations of the brain's neurons to tease out their secrets. The project uses IBM's latest installation of BlueGene/L supercomputer running on Linux to run simulations of neurons. The Blue Brain computer will occupy the floor space of about four refrigerators and can reach a peak speed of some 22.8 teraflops -- 22.8 trillion calculations every second -- putting it among the the world's top 15 supercomputers. The fastest supercomputer in the world is at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- the BlueGene system, when finished later this year, will have a peak speed of 367 teraflops.

Part of the reason why the brain and its functions remain a mystery is that most of the research till date have been 'wet-lab' ones, done on lab animals like rat and mice. These experiments are very complex and painfully slow to conduct, often taking two to three years to complete. This is where the blazing speed of IBM's Blue Brain computers will help. Its amazing number crunching ability will help speed up the simulations of these 'wet-lab' experiments, cutting down on the time involved to a few days, sometimes seconds.


The Blue Brain computer will wake up on July 1, 2005. Over the next two years, scientists and engineers from both the EPFL and IBM, along with an online network of brain and computer scientits, will create a detailed model of the circuitry in the brain's neocortex. The neocortex is the largest and most complex part of the human brain, and constitutes about 85 per cent of the brain's total mass. The neocortex is thought to be responsible for the cognitive functions of language, learning, memory and complex thought.

The neocortical columns are the building blocks of the cortex, the part of the brain that differentiates mammals from other animals. "The neocortical column is the beginning of intelligence and adaptability," Markram told Businessweek magazine.

How will the simulations be run? The Blue Brain computer will use the knowledge scientists have gathered till now about how neurons in the brain talk to each other to run the accelerated simulations. The Blue Brain has some 8,000 processors and the scientists will map one or two simulated brain neurons to each processor, making the computer a replica of 10,000 neurons. The simulated neurons will be interconnected with rules the team has worked out about how the brain functions. This result would be a simulated model that is 1,000 times larger than any such model till late -- an electronic brain with 10,000 neurons chattering away and in the process exposing the secrets of their functioning to the watchful scientists.

"Modeling the brain at the cellular level is a massive undertaking because of the hundreds of thousands of parameters that need to be taken into account," said Henry Markram, the EPFL professor heading the project and founder of EPFL's Brain and Mind Institute. The mapping of the neocortex is itself expected to take two to three years. Markram will start by simulating a single rat neurocortical column, rigorously checking the model in experiments against neurocortical columns taken from rats.

Eventually, the project will be expanded to model other areas of the brain to build an accurate, computer-based model of the entire brain. This will need a bigger Blue Brain and could take a decade to complete -- even with BlueGene/P, IBM's next-generation supercomputer.


The project will search for insights into how human beings think and remember. It may also shed light on psychiatric disorders and how they arise. Scientists believe defective circuitry in the brain is the cause of autism, schizophrenia, depression and other psychological problems. The project, scientists think, could also help the search for a cure for Parkinson's disease.

And it is not just brain research that will benefit from the Blue Brain project. The latest theory is that brain circuitry is in a complex state of flux, the brain rewiring itself every moment of its existence. If the scientists can crack open the secret of how and why the brain does it, the knowledge could lead to a revolutionary new breed of supercomputers. Such computers could make today's supercomputers look like lumbering analog calculators!


God save the Malayalee

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