PS3 game systems to take role in fighting Alzheimer's

A software update will allow them to be used in a distributed computing project

Looking for a perfectly good reason to buy a Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) game system? How about this: Starting at the end of this month, PS3 users can help researchers at Stanford University find a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. last week said that its next software upgrade for the PS3 system will support a feature that allows users to add their systems to a collection of more than 200,000 PCs collectively crunching numbers for a Stanford project called Folding@home (FAH).

Launched in 2000, FAH is a SETI-like distributed computing project aimed at understanding a process called protein folding in which proteins take on a particular shape before carrying out their function as an enzyme or antibody. Stanford researchers are working on simulating the folding process to understand why proteins sometimes misfold and cause diseases such as Alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis.

Since performing such simulations can take a very long time and petaflops of processing power, the FAH project has harnessed the power of tens of thousands of PCs around the world to try to speed up calculations. The software update from Sony allows PS3 users to contribute to the program by letting their systems be tapped for running calculations when they are not in use.

The Cell Broadband Engine processor inside the PS3 is roughly 10 times faster than standard PC processors and will dramatically add to the computing power available to Stanford researchers for the project, Sony said in a statement last week.

"The cell processor is very powerful and is well suited to certain types of calculations in FAH," said Vijay Pande, an associate professor at Stanford and the creator of the FAH project. In fact, for some calculations, the PS3 processor is 20 times faster than standard PC chips, Pande said.

Details posted on Stanford's Web site said that about 10,000 PS3s will allow the FAH project to achieve performance on a petaflop scale. "While the Cell microprocessor does most of the calculation processing of the simulation, the graphic chip of the PS3 system (the RSX) displays the actual folding process in real time using new technologies," the Web site noted. "It is possible to navigate the 3D space of the molecule using the interactive controller of the PS3, allowing us to look at the protein from different angles in real time."

PS3 users who want to join the project will simply need to click on a new Folding@home icon that will become available with the next software update, Sony said. Or they can optionally set the system to run the application automatically whenever the PS3 is idle, the company said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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