​The Human Brain Project

The human brain is a truly amazing and awe-inspiring thing. It can perform feats that even the most sophisticated computers are only just starting to tackle and does so using a tiny amount of energy. The human brain consists of approximately 86 billion nerve cells that form local and global brain networks through about ten thousand synaptic contacts per cell. These networks respond in milliseconds, but also change slowly, e.g., during the course of a day, and over the months and years in the lifespan of a person. They are shaped and re-shaped by genes as well as experience and have several hundred millions of years of evolutionary history. Understanding the multilevel organisation of the brain requires bridging the different scales in time and space, from the molecular to the level of large scale organisation and behaviour.

This challenge is so extraordinary that not the even best-funded single research project could claim to provide the full picture. Therefore, a unique lasting contribution the Human Brain Project (HBP) can make is to integrate and focus precious resources to build a collaborative platform: a genuine​ European research infrastructure driven by innovative supercomputing and neuromorphic systems, says Dr. Katrin Amunts, the scientific research director of the HBP. On the platform, experimental and theoretical approaches are combined with models, simulation and data analytics. This provides neuroscience and brain medicine with a new path to meet the brain organisation, linking insights, methods and large datasets from many areas of brain research.

Understanding the brain takes more than brain power

Simulation and data analytics are becoming more and more valuable tools in neuroscience to approach the brain’s complexity. The High Performance Analytics and Computing Platform of the HBP provides the necessary infrastructure both inside and out of the HBP. There is a network of four supercomputing centers: CSCS Lugano, the Juelich Supercomputing Center, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and CINECA in Bologna. They host some of the most powerful computers in the world, capable of performing quadrillions of operations per second and with memory capacity measured in quadrillions of bytes. They also make this hardware available to the scientists through their Fenix platform (Federated Network for Information Exchange). I.e., they collaborate with neuroscientists to develop software, e.g. to manage and analyse their huge datasets, to simulate models most efficiently on the supercomputers (getting better results as fast as possible) or to visualize the datasets. Computer- and neuroscientists also learn together, which computer architecture is the most appropriate to solve a certain problem. It is expected that such co-design will inspire new technologies such as modular supercomputing.

This computing capacity is provided by HPC centres across Europe, which are also members of PRACE.

GÉANT worked with PRACE and the Human Brain Project to ensure that these centres were interconnected across the GÉANT and NREN networks. To enable these connections PRACE and GÉANT launched in December 2016 a pathfinder project to interconnect these sites using the MD-VPN networking service to replace the previous dedicated network infrastructure. MD-VPN provides extremely high performance virtual private networks between all the sites to enable simple, secure and manageable network capacity.

By March 2017 the pilot had been completed and was so successful that agreements were made to expand the network to include all PRACE computing centres and currently 25 systems on 18 sites in 14 countries are now connected via MD-VPN.​

This use of scalable IP networking services will allow a vast range of projects such as the Human Brain Project to access and use PRACE’s services much more easily in the future.

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