Jülich scientists outline in Science how brain research makes new demands on supercomputing

Jülich, 26 November 2021 – In the latest issue of Science, Katrin Amunts and Thomas Lippert explain how advances in neuroscience demand high-performance computing technology and will ultimately need exascale computing power.

The Jülich supercomputer JUWELS is currently the most powerful supercomputer in Europe.

Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich

“Understanding the brain in all its complexity requires insights from multiple scales – from genomics, cells and synapses to the whole-organ level. This means working with large amounts of data, and supercomputing is becoming an indispensable tool to tackle the brain,” says Katrin Amunts, Scientific Director of the Human Brain Project (HBP), Director of the C. and O. Vogt-Institute of Brain Research, Universitätsklinikum Düsseldorf and Director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1) at Research Centre Jülich.

“It’s an exciting time in supercomputing,” says Thomas Lippert, Director of the Jülich Supercomputing Centre and leader of supercomputing in the Human Brain Project. “We get a lot of new requests from researchers of the neuroscience community that need powerful computing to tackle the brain’s complexity. In response, we are developing new tools tailored to investigating the brain.”

Exascale – the next big step in supercomputing

The construction of a supercomputer capable of 10 to the power of 18 computing operations per second has been considered the next big step in high-performance computing for many years. Forschungszentrum Jülich is also working intensively on new technologies that will make such a leap possible.

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The human brain contains around 86 billion neurons that form trillions of contact points. Imaging an entire brain at cellular resolutions produces data in the range of several Petabytes; electron microscopy of a whole brain would amount to more than one Exabyte of data. “Brain research, medicine and information technologies face challenges that can only be addressed by joining the forces of all three domains,” says Amunts.

Big Data in der Hirnforschung
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich

In Europe, the big data challenge of neuroscience is addressed by the Human Brain Project’s research infrastructure EBRAINS. It provides a range of tools, data-, and compute-services to brain researchers. This includes access to supercomputing systems via the Fenix federated Infrastructure, which has been set up by Europe’s leading Supercomputing Centres as part of the Human Brain Project and will serve communities beyond brain research.

Within the next five years, Europe is aiming to deploy its first two exascale supercomputers. They will be acquired by the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU), a joint initiative between the EU, European countries and private partners supported by multi-billion Euro funding. “The brain research community stands ready to use these exascale systems,” says Amunts.

High-resolution imaging of a brain slice using 3D Polarised Light Imgaging (3D-PLI).

Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Original publication:

Brain research challenges supercomputing

Katrin Amunts and Thomas Lippert

Science (published online 25 Nov 2021), DOI: 10.1126/science.abl8519

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