• Event Report

BrainComp 2022: Experts in neuroscience and computing discuss the digital transformation of neuroscience and benefits of collaborating

28 September 2022

Brain connectivity challenges even supercomputing. Nerve fibres of the human visual cortex visualized by Polarized Light Imaging (left, Photo: Markus Axer) and Germany's fastest supercomputer JUWELS at Forschungszentrum Jülich. (right, Photo: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau).

A new field of science has been emerging at the intersection of neuroscience and high-performance computing - this is the takeaway from the 2022 BrainComp conference, which took place in Cetraro, Italy from the 19th to the 22nd of September. The meeting, which featured international experts in brain mapping, machine learning, simulation, research infrastructures, neuro-derived hardware, neuroethics and more, strengthened the current collaborations in this emerging field and forged new ones.

Now in its 5th edition, BrainComp first started in 2013 and is jointly organised by the Human Brain Project and the EBRAINS digital research infrastructure, University of Calabria in Italy, the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf and the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany. It is attended by researchers from inside and outside the Human Brain Project. This year was dedicated to the computational challenges of brain connectivity. The brain is the most complex system in the observable universe due to the tight connections between areas down to the wiring of the individual neurons: decoding this complexity through neuroscientific and computing advances benefits both fields.

Hosted by the organising committee of Katrin Amunts, Scientific Research Director of the HBP, Thomas Lippert, Leader of EBRAINS Computing Services from the Juelich Supercomputing Centre and Lucio Grandinetti from the University of Calabria, the sessions included a variety of topics over four days. 

HBP researcher Giulia Rossetti from Juelich presented her latest results about machine-learning-driven translational medicine for the development of personalized brain drugs. Machine learning and how to better implement it to optimize results and eliminate bias which may be present in the dataset was a feature of multiple talks, including ones from international guests. Gustavo Deco from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, had a talk which applied the physics concept of the arrow of time to brain activity. 

More detailed and interactive brain maps have always been one of the main goals of the HBP, and the use of supercomputers to analyse large sections of data, reconstruct the cytoarchitecture of the brain in 3D, and even redraw the established neuroanatomy maps was discussed by multiple participants. New methods and approaches to investigate the principles of brain organisation were presented in talks by researchers from across Europe. Jean Francois Mangin (CEA Paris, NeuroSpin Research Center), Roxana Kooijmans (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience) and the leader of HBPs research area on “Networks underlying brain cognition and consciousness”, Mavi Sanchez-Vives from IDIBAPS Barcelona. Joko Poleksic from the University of Belgrade showed first 3D maps of a previously neglected area of the olfactory system, the terminal islands; meanwhile, Felix Matuschke from Juelich presented an upcoming project to achieve micron-scale tractography which would not be possible without the use of exascale supercomputers. 

Johannes Schemmel and Sebastian Billaudelle from the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics in Germany provided an overview of current experiments and use-cases for the BrainscaleS-2 chip, an example of neuromorphic computing, which uses brain-inspired technology for increased performance and energy efficiency. Emre Neftci, Institute Director at Forschungszentrum Jülich, delivered a talk on current use cases for neuromorphic technology, comparing its strength and weaknesses to traditional computing. 

Lena Oden and Wouter Klijn from Forschungszentrum Jülich discussed how to optimize the usability of the digital research platform EBRAINS and how to provide added value to its users by providing legacy workflows and curation. Thomas Lippert presented the supercomputing infrastructure FENIX, set-up by Europe's leading supercomputing centres and providing basal computing services upon which EBRAINS services are built. Arleen Salles, Deputy Leader of Responsible Research and Innovation at HBP, used the concept of digital twins to discuss the ethical aspects of future neuroscience that excellent research should be prepared to face. 

“All new fields of research stem from collaboration, experimentation and bouncing ideas off each other,” says Katrin Amunts. “Conferences such as these put us at the forefront of this process.”   

Text: Roberto Inchingolo