By Salvatore Salamone
July 20, 2005 | IBM and the Swiss research institute E´cole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have announced a joint research initiative dubbed the Blue Brain Project to create a 3-D model of the brain.
Scientists from both organizations will use data from more than 10 years of wet lab experimental and research data collected at EPFL to develop a computer model of the brain’s workings at the molecular level. Specifically, the researchers will develop a 3-D model of the neocortex that takes into account the high-speed electrochemical interactions of the brain’s interior.
The model will then be used to run simulations to better understand how the brain functions.
“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,” says Henry Markram, founder of the EPFL Brain and Mind Institute and the EPFL professor heading up the project. “With our [IBM’s and EPFL’s] combined resources and expertise, we are embarking on one of the most ambitious research initiatives ever undertaken in the field of neuroscience.”
To perform the simulations, the project will use a four-rack Blue Gene/L system that will deliver a peak processing of about 22.8 teraFLOPS (22.8 trillion operations per second). To put this processing power into perspective, a year ago such a system would have been roughly the world’s second most powerful computer, according to the June 2004 list of the Top 500 supercomputers.“This modeling is not possible without the processing power of Blue Gene/L,” says Tilak Agerwala, vice president, systems, IBM Research. He notes that the work with EPFL is a collaborative effort and that researchers from both organizations will develop the model and interpret the results.
The project will start with the collection of data Markram has gathered over the last decade. This information will be used to develop the computer model of the neocortex.
“The model will simulate the observable results,” says Charles Peck, an IBM researcher whose area of expertise is biometaphorical computing. “Once the model is validated, it can then be used to [accelerate] the research.” For example, the model could be used to help researchers select what type of experiments to do in the lab.
One benefit of the model is that it will allow researchers to “see” things — interactions, for example — that cannot be observed in the lab. For instance, researchers will be able to “play back” simulations and note interactions that lead to changes in the brain’s workings.
The group expects the simulation and modeling work will significantly accelerate research efforts. “With an accurate computer-based model of the brain, much of the pre-testing and planning normally required for a major experiment could be done in silico rather than in the laboratory,” says Markram. “With certain simulations we anticipate that a full day’s worth of wet lab research could be done in a matter of seconds on Blue Gene.”