June 09, 2005

Supercomputer for Brain Study

Read more... Schizophrenia Biology

Blue Brain: Illuminating the Mind

On July 1st, a new supercomputer, called the Blue Brain computer, "will wake up... Scientists will use...(this) blazingly fast supercomputer to do never-before-possible research into how we think and how mental disorders arise."

The Blue Brain computer is the latest installation of IBM's (IBM) BlueGene/L system, a radically new approach in supercomputer design. EPFL's machine has a peak speed of some 22.8 teraflops -- meaning it can theoretically spit out 22.8 trillion calculations every second. That blazing speed should put Blue Brain among the world's top 15 supercomputers. (The world champ is the BlueGene system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- when finished later this year, it will have a peak speed of 367 teraflops.)

The Blue Brain Project will search for novel insights into how humans think and remember. Plus, by running accurate simulations of brain processes, "we'll be able to investigate questions about psychiatric disorders and how they arise," Markram says. Scientists believe that autism, schizophrenia, depression, and other psychological problems are caused by defective or malfunctioning circuitry in the brain.

Parkinson's disease is another target, adds Markram. "There's a group of cells deep down in the mid-brain that produce dopamine, and when these cells begin to die and dopamine production decreases, you get Parkinson's," he explains. "We'll be able to mimic this,"creating simulations that should make Blue Brain an invaluable tool for drug-company researchers on the track of treatments or cures for Parkinson's.

Learning how the brain works has been one of science's great challenges. Researchers still don't have a holistic grasp of how we think. One reason: Most research so far has been conducted with "wet" experiments -- stimulating or dissecting the brains of mice, rats, and other animals. Markram notes that "some 'wet-lab' experiments are incredibly complicated," taking up to three years and costing $1 million.

With simulations on Blue Brain, he predicts, "we'll be able to do that same work in days, maybe seconds. It's going to be absolutely phenomenal."

For the complete story

To learn more about the Brain Mind Institute

To learn more about IBM's Blue Gene Project


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