Tue, Jul 26, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Computer scientists to copy brain of a mammal


IBM and Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have teamed up to create the most ambitious project in the field of neuroscience: to simulate a mammalian brain on the world's most powerful supercomputer, IBM's Blue Gene.

Most theoretical neuroscientists have tried to simulate the brain using artificial neural networks. "That is not our goal," says Henry Markram, the professor leading the project. Markram wants to simulate the brain at every level of detail, even going down to molecular and gene expression levels of processing. At EPFL's Brain and Mind Institute, every facet of the brain is being examined and modelled.

"Blue Gene is by far the fastest supercomputing system in the world, giving scientists access to unprecedented levels of computing power," says Tilak Agerwala, vice president of systems at IBM Research. "What matters is not the power itself, but how it is applied in innovative ways that have the potential to transform our understanding of the world and improve our quality of life."

The project will begin by focusing on the neo-cortex -- the part of the brain responsible for higher reasoning, such as language, learning and memory. The neo-cortex makes up about 80 percent of the human brain's total mass, and consists of a number of columns. A neo-cortical column is about the width of a pen and contains about 10,000 neurons and 10,000 times more synapses. "It is considered the fundamental functional element of the neo-cortex," says lead researcher Charles Peck.

To simulate even a single column requires enormous computing power -- power that, until recently, simply hadn't been available. The system that has been installed at EPFL has a peak processing speed of 22.8 teraflops and will use 8,000 processors to replicate just one neo-cortical column. This part of the project is expected to take two to three years.

The Brain and Mind Institute has a more detailed set of data on the workings of the neo-cortical columns than any other research organization in the world. Now that it has the blueprint, it is keen to begin replicating it in silica.

"I started discussing the project with IBM about four years ago when they were just in the beginning of the conception of the Blue Gene," says Markram. "It was a bit early for IBM and ... for my laboratory, but in the meantime, IBM has reached the stage where Blue Gene is a really fine machine."

Blue Brain Project is not just an academic exercise; it will reveal the key computational principles and functions of the brain.

Modeling the neo-cortex is essential to understanding how it processes information, allowing researchers to perform experiments that may otherwise not have been possible. It will also save a lot of animal experiments.

So how important is this project? "I'm probably a bit biased," says Markram, "but I think this is the equivalent of going to the moon."

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