Blue Brain: Illuminating the Mind


By Otis Port On July 1, the Blue Brain computer will wake up, marking "a monumental moment" in the history of brain research, says neuroscientist Henry Markram, founder of the Brain Mind Institute at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). The event could usher in a new era of scientific discoveries about the workings of the human mind.

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.)

"A UNIQUE FACILITY." Markram's EPFL team, collaborating with IBM researchers and an online network of brain and computer scientists, will use Blue Brain to create a detailed computer model of the neocortex, the largest and most complex part of the human brain. "That's going to take two to three years," he says.

Then, with a bigger Blue Brain, he hopes to build a cellular-level model of the entire brain. This may take a decade -- even with IBM's next-generation system, BlueGene/P. Markram can't wait to get his hands on one of these number-crunching beasts.

BlueGene/P will have faster processors and could ultimately reach petaflops speeds-- quadrillions of calculations per second. "We're planning on a very long-term effort," notes Markram. "We're creating a unique facility for researchers worldwide." Adds Charles Peck, the IBM researcher who leads the Blue Brain effort at IBM's research division in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.: "There's now a tremendous opportunity to do some science that up to this point just hasn't been possible."

THINKING MYSTERY. The Blue Brain Project will search for novel insights into how humans think and remember. Plus, by 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."

CONSTANTLY CHANGING CIRCUITRY. Markram first broached the idea of a BlueGene-based collaboration five years ago, right after IBM unveiled the supercomputer system. "Even before that, Henry had been wanting to go down this path of computer simulations," says IBM's Peck. "But only now is it actually feasible."

That's because the brain is so extraordinarily complex that an enormously powerful computer is required. The brain's physical structure and electrochemical operations are very intricate. Complicating things still further is its constantly changing internal circuitry. "The brain is in a very different state in the morning, when you wake up, than it is at noontime," Markram points out.

Fifty years ago, he notes, "we believed that memories were somehow hardwired into the brain. But our lab [EPFL's Laboratory of Neural Microcircuitry] has been one of the main propagators of a new theory, in which the brain is incredibly fluid. It's restructuring itself continuously -- self-organizing and reorganizing all the time."

HUGE SIMULATION. If brain circuitry is in a constant state of flux, Markram insists that long-term memories can't be permanent, hardwired fixtures. To explain how memories are preserved, he and his colleagues cooked up the "liquid-computing" theory. Validating this concept with Blue Brain, he hints, might point to new types of silicon circuits that perform new and more-complex functions -- which IBM could use to build a revolutionary brain-like computer.

"That's a possibility," says Tilak Agerwala, a vice-president at IBM Research. "But we're still very far from understanding how the brain works, so it's much too early to know if we should build computers that way." However, the notion already has a fancy moniker: biometaphorical computing.

For now, Markram sees the BlueGene architecture as the best tool for modeling the brain. Blue Brain has some 8,000 processors, and by mapping one or two simulated brain neurons to each processor, the computer will become a silicon replica of 10,000 neurons. "Then we'll interconnect them with the rules [in software] that we've worked out about how the brain functions," says Markram.

The result will be a full-fledged model of 10,000 neurons jabbering back and forth -- a simulation 1,000 times larger than any similar model to date.

FANTASTIC ACCELERATION. This setup will form the foundation for studying neocortical columns -- the building blocks of the cortex and the part of the brain that differentiates mammals from other animals. Each column is a bundle of networked neurons and is roughly 1/2 millimeter in diameter and 2 millimeters long. That's only about the size of a pinhead, Markram notes. "But packed inside are 50,000 neurons and more than 5 kilometers [3 miles] of wiring," he marvels.

"The neocortical column is the beginning of intelligence and adaptability," Markram adds. "It marks the jump from reptiles to mammals." When it evolved, it was like Mother Nature had discovered the Pentium chip, he quips -- the circuitry "was so successful that it's just duplicated, with very little variation, from mouse to man. In the human cortex, there are just more cortical columns -- about 1 million."

Since the neocortical column was first discovered 40 years ago, researchers have been painstakingly unraveling how it helps perform the miracles of thought that enable humans to be creative, inventive, philosophical creatures. "That's been my passion, my mission for 10 years," says Markram. "Now, we know how information is transferred form one neuron to another. We know how they behave -- what they do and whom they talk to. We've actually mapped that out."

Next, that knowledge will be transferred into a torridly fast silicon simulator. Blue Brain promises a fantastic acceleration in brain research. It could be as dramatic as the leap from chiseling numbers in Sumerian clay tablets 2,500 years ago to crunching them in modern computers. And the Blue Brain Project just might culminate in a new breed of supersmart computers that will make even BlueGene/L seem like a piker. Port is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York


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