Why Brain Research Will Require Exascale Computing

By Oliver Peckham

December 10, 2021

The exascale era of supercomputing is here, with early applications of confirmed systems including quantum circuit simulation, fusion energy and advanced spectroscopy. Now, a duo of researchers from the Jülich Supercomputing Centre in Germany – Katrin Amunts and Thomas Lippert – have published an article in Science detailing how another sector will soon be requiring that kind of computing firepower: brain research.

The adult human brain, the authors explain, contains around 86 billion neurons. “It is a gigantic challenge to process and analyze entire human brains at cellular resolution,” they write, adding: “At present, it is not within reach to go down to individual axons at the whole-brain level.” They detail what it would take to move to the axonal level of whole-brain analysis, then to incorporate other elements of brain organization, such as molecular architecture or temporal changes.

“These endeavors set requirements for high-performance computing technology,” they write, saying that an optimized representation of brain fibers “is not possible with current petascale technology but can be accomplished with future exascale computing power[.]” Specifically, they also highlight the need for “modular and interactive concepts of future supercomputing,” as well as “exabyte-scale parallel file systems” that are cloud-accessible to the broader research community.

JUWELS supercomputer at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Credit: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Wilhelm-Peter Schneider

The researchers at Jülich are no strangers to brain research. The center – which hosts JUWELS, currently the most powerful publicly ranked supercomputer in Europe – already leverages that system’s modular capabilities to conduct high-level brain modeling using neuromorphic modules. The center continues to work on developing a “three-dimensional, realistic model of the human brain” and participates in the European Union’s Human Brain Project, which itself “aims to put in place a cutting-edge research infrastructure that will allow scientific and industrial researchers to advance our knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, computing, and brain-related medicine.”

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

“It’s an exciting time in supercomputing,” added Thomas Lippert, director of the Jülich Supercomputing Centre, leader of supercomputing in the Human Brain Project and co-author of the article. “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.”

To learn more about the future of brain research supercomputing, read the article in Science, “Brain research challenges supercomputing,” written by Katrin Amunts and Thomas Lippert.

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