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Swiss lab works with IBM to uncover power of brain

Blue Gene supercomputer to be used to map a rat's brain

By Peter Sayer
June 6, 2005 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - On July 1, Swiss researchers and IBM plan to start up a detailed supercomputer model of part of a rat's brain that could eventually lead to better understanding of brain circuitry in humans.
The researchers will map out the neocortical column, the basic building block of the neocortex, which is responsible for higher information-processing functions in mammals. The rat model could lead to new understanding of the causes of psychiatric problems in human brains, and a later stage of the project could help the search for cures, researchers say.
The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and IBM are expected to announce a joint research initiative today to develop the model.
The scale of the project shows just how powerful our brains are. It will take an IBM eServer Blue Gene supercomputer containing more than 8,000 processors housed in four racks to model the behavior of something less than a billionth its size: a neocortical column is a cylindrical element roughly 0.5 millimeters in diameter and 2 mm long. A rat's brain contains 10,000 of them -- and the human brain around a million, according to Henry Markram, director of the Brain and Mind Institute at EPFL.
Markram's plan is to model the cylinders at the level of individual neurons: A neocortical column contains about 10,000 of those. Over years of research, he and his colleagues have accumulated a huge amount of data about how individual neurons behave and how they interconnect and interact with one another to make up a column. That data will be used to create a detailed model of a single neuron, including its three-dimensional form, inside each processor, with the Blue Gene computer as a whole modeling a column.
The team will spend the next two years refining and calibrating the model by comparing its behavior with measurements taken from real rat brains. When the model is ready, scientists will be able to use it to simulate in a matter of seconds an experiment that takes a whole day to perform now, Markram said.
Then, work can begin on two further stages of research, taking it in two different directions. One is to go deeper, adding more detail to the individual neuron model, so as to describe the way genes in the cell's DNA affect its behavior, while the other is to go up a level, simplifying the model so that the behavior of columns can be predicted with less computing power.
That shift may one day allow scientists to model the behavior of a complete brain -- althoughthis project is about biological research, not artificial intelligence, said Charles Peck, an IBM researcher.
"Whole brain simulation will be maybe 10 to 15 years out," he said, assuming that computing power continues to grow and that researchers begin with the simpler task of simulating animal brains, the behavior of which they can compare with experimental data.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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