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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June, 2005, 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK
Supercomputer to build 3D brain
Brain (IBM)
The neocortex is organised into thousands of columns of neurons
Neuroscientists are to build the most detailed model of the human brain with the help of an IBM supercomputer.

Experts at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, will spend the next two years creating a 3D simulation of the neocortex.

This is the part of the brain thought to be responsible for language, learning, memory and complex thought.

The researchers believe the project will give them fresh insights into the most remarkable organ in the body.

"Modelling 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," said Henry Markram, the EPFL professor leading the project.

The Swiss scientist and his colleagues will have at their disposal an IBM's eServer Blue Gene supercomputer.

Up the pace

The system to be installed at their EPFL lab will take up the floor space of about four refrigerators, and will have a peak processing speed of at least 22.8 trillion floating-point operations per second (22.8 teraflops), making it one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Five years ago, no supercomputer in the world was capable of more than one teraflop.

Molecular model
Supercomputers are increasinlgy being used in research to model biomolecules
The effort has been dubbed the Blue Brain Project. It is a daunting undertaking given the myriad of electro-chemical connections that must be mapped.

By using a supercomputer to run experiments in real time, Professor Markram hopes to accelerate substantially the pace of brain research.

"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.

"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."

The Blue Brain Project will start with the neocortex but scientists expect eventually to produced a 3D model of the entire brain.

Researchers expect not only to get a better understanding of how the organ is wired up but also to use that "atlas" of neurocircuitry to probe how the brain functions - and malfunctions.

The scientists say the project could lead, for example, to new ideas on how psychiatric disorders develop - illnesses such as autism, schizophrenia, and depression.

Supercomputers have recently become a major tool in a range of advanced biological applications, from helping to piece together fragmented DNA information to the design of new drug molecules.

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