Researchers have created a computer that mimics the brain’s neural networks. This computer produces similar results to current brain simulation supercomputer software for research on neural signaling.
The new computer, called SpiNNaker, overcomes speed and power issues that have slowed neural signaling research with past supercomputers. The new computer could advance the research on neural processing in the brain and open new doors for research on epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.
"SpiNNaker can support detailed biological models of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain that receives and processes information from the senses — delivering results very similar to those from an equivalent supercomputer software simulation," said Dr. Sacha van Albada, leader of the theoretical neuroanatomy group at the Jülich Research Centre, Germany. "The ability to run large-scale detailed neural networks quickly and at low power consumption will advance robotics research and facilitate studies on learning and brain disorders."
A human brain has around 100 billion interconnected brain cells. This means that researchers have struggled to research the neural activity of the brain. Unlike other areas of the brain, less is known about how neural activity translates into movement, a key topic into movement-related brain diseases. In the past, supercomputers have been able to simulate the exchange of signals between neurons but they have only been able to simulate one percent of the brain activity. The new computer is changing this.
"There is a huge gap between the energy consumption of the brain and today's supercomputers. Neuromorphic (brain-inspired) computing allows us to investigate how close we can get to the energy efficiency of the brain using electronics,” said Professor Markus Diesmann, co-author and head of the computational and systems neuroscience department at the Jülich Research Centre.
SpiNNaker is a custom-built computer that has the ability to create a half-million simple computing elements that are controlled by its software. The new supercomputer was tested against NEST, a specialized supercomputer that has been used in the past for brain neuron signaling research.
"The simulations run on NEST and SpiNNaker showed very similar results," reported Steve Furber, co-author and professor of computer engineering at the University of Manchester, U.K. "This is the first time such a detailed simulation of the cortex has been run on SpiNNaker, or on any neuromorphic platform. SpiNNaker comprises 600 circuit boards incorporating over 500,000 small processors in total. The simulation described in this study used just six boards — 1% of the total capability of the machine. The findings from our research will improve the software to reduce this to a single board."
The paper on SpiNNaker was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.