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Photos: Supercomputers unlocking the brain's secrets

Cubric's odyssey
By Nick Heath, Contributor on
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Cubric's odyssey

Supercomputing is helping UK researchers to delve deeper into the workings of the human mind than ever before.

At the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (Cubric) researchers are pioneering advanced brain scanning techniques to learn how to combat conditions such as autism.

Cubric's 75 servers have slashed the time it takes to crunch through gigabytes of brain scan data, allowing scans that used to take days to be produced in minutes.

Research associate at the university, Alexander Leemans, uses Cubric's cluster to crunch through data from diffusion MRI scans and map how white matter fibres are connected in the brain, as seen here.

The colours in the scan reflect the diffusion of water molecules that in turn reveals the brain's complex fibre network.

Researchers at Cardiff are using the results to look for differences in the brains of people with autism.

Leemans said: "Now you can divide the time taken to calculate the voxels [3D pixels] in the scan by about 300, so it can be done in minutes or seconds."

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here is the Magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanner, which maps the magnetic fields associated with electric fields in the brain.

Cubric's MEG is one of the best available and is able to record data from about 275 locations in the brain simultaneously.

The machine produces about a gigabyte of data every 20 minutes and produces information that is used to map the location of brain activity on MRI brain scans.

The results are helping researchers to understand brain function and are being used in the study of epilepsy, in particular looking at where in the brain seizures occur.

MEG laboratory manager Suresh Muthukumaraswamy said: "I used to leave the PC grinding through the data over the weekend and sometimes it would still be going on the Monday.

"Now with the cluster it takes about 20 minutes to finish. It also means I can do types of analysis that were not available to me before."

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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The MEG scanner is so sensitive it has to be screened by a Faraday cage, a mesh of copper, to block out interference.

This blue and green graph shows the electromagnetic field (EMF) readings in the MEG. The sharp spikes seen in the readout were caused by somebody merely tapping their foot on the floor in the next room, setting off minute vibrations in the under-floor metal beams.

Researchers filter out interference from other parts of the body such as from the heart beating by focusing on fields in a certain frequency.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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The superconductors in the MEG have to be cooled to a very low temperature using liquid helium, seen here.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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This is an Electroencephalogram (EEG) hat. The hats help make it easier to place the electrodes on the subject's head when taking EEG readings in conjunction with MEG and MRI scans.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here is the door to the MRI scanner. The magnets inside the scanner are so strong they will instantly pull anything ferrous into the centre of the scanner.

The team have to screen everything inside the scanner room to make sure there are no ferrous objects around, and use platinum spanners and non-ferrous fire extinguishers.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here is the MRI scanner used to produce the data for the diffusion MRI images.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here is the inside of the MRI scanner.

Cubric has been operating for about two years and has about £10m funding, £8m of which was from the then Department of Trade and Industry.

The centre has about 50 studies on the go, each with about 10 to 20 subjects.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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These are some of the 75 IBM servers, each containing two dual core 64-bit 2.2GHz AMD Opteron processors and 4GB of memory.

The servers are running Red Hat 5.

The cluster runs at about 530 gigaflops and was fitted by high performance computing specialist OCF.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here is Cubric's 40 terabytes (TB) of storage, of which about 30TB has been used.

It uses a general parallel file system that enables bit level locking and allows multiple computer processes to write to the same file at once.

There is a 1Gbps connection from the cluster to the workstations and the wider university network.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here are the five login nodes to give people remote access to Cubric's workstation desktop.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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