Neuroscience Computing Boot Camp Aims to Ignite Interest for Brain Research


Representatives argued in favor of a National Brain Observatory, dedicated to neuroscience.

In an initiative to generate federal interest in new computer chips built to mimic the human brain, early August will see a neuroscience computing boot camp for government employees and academics.

IBM plans to host the event. As part of that same effort, the company Thursday conducted the second of two recent congressional briefings about its emerging "cognitive computing" technology -- individual chips, modeled after neurons -- which can be linked to increase computing power, according to the company.

The briefing was hosted by the House Science and National Labs Caucus and the Senate National Laboratories Caucus.

During the briefing, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn., said he and a group of other representatives last year put language in the appropriations bill to support the creation of a National Brain Observatory, a laboratory dedicated to neuroscience.  

Understanding how the brain works "is critically needed," Fattah said, though he added, "this is an area in which there's still more ignorance than education, and we have a lot of work to do."

James Brase, a program director from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said chips with outsize computing power could be useful in biomedical research, especially to do detailed analysis of patterns in DNA. The lab is currently conducting a pilot study with the University of Chicago to track how antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread in an intensive care unit, potentially predicting a patient's treatment needs based on his or her individual DNA profile and the patient’s likelihood of infection.

Today, Brase said, "that requires a supercomputer . . . but with this new technology, we'll be able to put those capabilities into every ICU, every hospital in the country."

The lab also works with anthropologists at Georgetown University to model why families are forced to migrate. These models become more sophisticated as the team collects more data -- climate measurement data and news reporting, for instance -- and uses more powerful computing technology.

This level of computing power could also be applied to urban planning, using real-time data to model how people move around the city, for instance, Brase said.

But there are practical barriers to applying neuroscience-inspired computing methods to projects in other departments, said Peter Littlewood, director of Argonne National Laboratory.

The way federal research is now funded, “particularly in a subject like this, which is so interdisciplinary,” he said, resources are pulled from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“And our system doesn't do that very cleanly," Littlewood added.  

A National Brain Observatory could help bring together these groups, Littlewood said. Currently, many of the neuroscience-computing research programs fall under the purview of Energy’s national labs.

"One of the challenges the DOE has is, of course, it that doesn’t do neuroscience,” he said. “Of course, it shouldn’t do neuroscience."

(Image via bestfoto77/