Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory are building state-of-the-art computer models of dynamic neural networks in order to discover what triggers seizures and to find new, more effective epilepsy treatments.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy and 30 percent of epilepsy cases do not respond well to treatment. In addition, the National Society for Epilepsy has recorded more than 40 different epilepsy syndromes, including those caused by congenital defects and neural-tissue trauma. Sudden and periodic seizures are a common symptom of epilepsy.
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The neural networks being modeled at Argonne, located just outside of Chicago, Ill., will provide a means of mapping the barely understood connections that serve as fertile ground for epileptiform activity - the convulsive electrical discharges that may signal a seizure.
Rick Stevens, Associate Laboratory Director for Computing, Environment and Life Sciences at Argonne, compares neural network models to models of other physical phenomena, including those of earthquakes, and likens epileptiform activity to the foreshocks that precede an earthquake.
Pinpointing what drives epileptiform activity could lead to "significant pharmaceutical outcomes" and broad implications in surgery, and the development of a more accurate treatment device, worn or implanted, which acts as a "brain pacemaker." Such devices already exist and monitor anomalous brain activity, but the trick is finding out how to "budge it back to a normal state," says Stevens.
One of the most challenging aspects of the project is finding out how complex and numbered the neural connections should be in order to impart noteworthy results. Computer scientist Mark Hereld is one of the researchers working with Stevens to determine the optimal scale and computational level of each model used in their epilepsy simulations.
Argonne employs a network of super computers, dubbed JAZZ, which includes 380 individual server machines. Also on the premises is IBM's Blue Gene/P, which has 160,000 processors and is one of the most advanced super computers in the field.
The human brain is thought to contain at least 100 billion neurons. Test models at Argonne are capable of replicating about a half-million brain cells, but scientific results are better using 10,000.
"We take our simulations and we cut it up into little pieces within the network," says Hereld. "The pieces are 2-D, like a piece of paper, and they replicate a slice of your brain. The separate computers across the network are then synchronized."