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Swiss scientists are plotting to develop a three dimensional model of the human brain, specifically of the circuitry in the neocortex. Researchers at IBM and The Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) will build the model using IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer. The goal is to gradually expand the model until it encompasses the entire brain.

Having a working model of the brain, or even the incredibly complex neocortex, should help researchers understand processes like thought, perception and memory. The simulations could also shed light on how and why particular parts of the brain malfunction, leading to a better understanding of autism, depression and schizophrenia.

Columns of neurons in the neocortex

The neocortex is unique to mammals, and accounts for around 85 per cent of the mass of the human brain. It is thought to be responsible for our higher cognitive functions, such as language, learning, memory and complex thought.

According to Henry Markram, the EPFL professor heading up the project, said the collaboration is one of the most ambitious initiatives undertaken in neuroscience: "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," he said.

Markram expects the simulation to accelerate the pace of brain research, with a lot of the pre-testing and planning done "in silico" rather than in the lab. "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," he added, in the rather charming language of the discipline.

The model of the brain will be based on 10 years of the wet lab experiments and research that Markram has been a part of at EPFL. The IBM researchers will use this data to build the model of the electrochemical interactions of the human brain on four racks of Blue Gene. The machine will have a very respectable peak processing capacity of 22.8 Teraflops, and will take up about the same space a four fridges.

The model of the brain is just one of the projects allocated time on the machine. Other teams will use Blue Gene to investigate how plasmas might be used in energy production, and how the folding of proteins plays a role in diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human variant of BSE, or mad-cow disease. ®

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