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Supercomputers Simulate Brain Activity

How do the brain’s some 100 billion neurons exchange information? What are the causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or dementia? In order to answer highly complex questions such as these, the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) supports scientists in their simulation of the processes in the brain. For this, they use JUQUEEN – one of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

JUQUEEN, the newest supercomputer at Forschungszentrum Jülich, currently has 130,000 processors and a peak performance of 1.6 petaflops (floating point operations per second, FLOPS for short). According to the TOP500 list, JUQUEEN is one of the ten fastest computers in the world, performing over 1,000 trillion arithmetic operations per second. This unimaginable capacity helps Jülich researchers to understand the complex interrelations in the brain.

Experts from JSC support research groups at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM) in creating a virtual atlas of the brain and simulating brain activity. This virtual reference work of the human control centre is created by analysing thousands of ultrathin tissue sections taken from individual areas of the brain to find out about cell architecture and the distribution of important molecules. The data obtained through this process require approximately 1 terabyte of storage space per brain slice. JSC assists in storing the vast amounts of data, placing the information gained from the brain tissue in a coordinate system, and then visualizing the data in the three-dimensional brain model. JSC experts also work closely with the relevant neuroscientists in their simulation of brain activity. With the aid of performance analysis tools, they help to tailor the simulation software to the latest generation of computers.

In order to simulate the complete human brain in future, gigantic computing capacities will be required. For this reason, JSC is already working with various partners on the next generation of exascale computers. These energy-efficient computers of the future will be able to perform around a quintillion arithmetic operations per second, and will thus be a thousand times faster than today’s supercomputers. Computer experts will use the brain as a model to develop the new computers, as the brain combines exceptionally high performance with the energy consumption of a low-energy light bulb.

Experts at JSC are also coordinating the DEEP project (Dynamical ExaScale Entry Platform), funded by the European Commission to the tune of € 8 million. In order to optimise different hardware components and integrate new energy-saving cooling systems into a high-performance network, Jülich scientists have developed a prototype of "cluster booster architecture". With this architecture, computer operations – depending on the complexity of the performance requirements – are divided out among different parallel processors to achieve optimal computing power.

To reinforce the interdisciplinary cooperation between high-performance computing experts and neuroscientists, the Simulation Laboratory Neuroscience was recently founded at Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Further information:

SimLab Neuroscience
JUQUEEN supercomputer
DEEP Project