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Your Brain on Blue Gene

IBM is putting serious thought into the part of the human brain believed to be responsible for language, learning and memory.

The Armonk, N.Y., company and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have embarked on the Blue Brain Project, a major research initiative to study brains. EPFL's Brain and Mind Institute has done more than 10 years of research.

The organizations will use IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer to run computer-based simulations of the brain's molecules to get a better grip on how the brain works.

Over the next two years, they will model the electro-chemical interactions in other areas of the brain, as well. IBM and EPFL said they also want to try to troubleshoot the brain to analyze how and why disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia and depression emerge.

In the first phase of the project, the orgs will make a software replica of a neocortex column in the hope of tying together genetic, molecular and cognitive levels of brain function. The parties will expand the project to simulate other brain regions down the road.

The system, which will be deployed in four racks, will fill the floor space of about four refrigerators, and will have a peak processing speed of at least 22.8 trillion operations per second, or teraflops.

Financial terms of the deal were not made public.

Blue Brain is the first of a handful of projects Big Blue and EPFL will undertake. Researchers from IBM's Zurich Research Lab will work together with scientists from EPFL's Institutes of Complex Matter Physics and Nanostructure Physics to figure out how to build smaller semiconductors.

Researchers will also use Blue Gene to look at the use of plasmas as a possible method of energy production. Another team will use Blue Gene to research protein folding and how this leads to Creutzfeldt-Jakob and other diseases.

IBM and EPFL said Blue Gene will run some simulations in seconds instead of days to get results faster. The supercomputer is prized because it scales well and handles large chunks of data without taking up much space.

Blue Gene is proving to be a popular eServer for many research projects. The system broke speed records on the Linpack benchmark test and is used by the U.S. Department of Energy to study how the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile is aging.

Blue Gene systems are used at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, San Diego Supercomputer Center, University of Edinburgh and Argonne National Laboratory, as well as the National Center for Atmospheric Research for genomic research and weather modeling.

The system comes with some flexibility, available from 1 to 64 racks, with 1,024 dual-processor nodes per rack. Each rack processes data at 5.7 teraflops.

Blue Gene also went commercial last year. IBM began selling it to organizations that need high-performance computing.