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Mapping the human brain with MASSIVE computing power

What makes us uniquely human? If the answer lies inside the nerve connections of the human brain, then neuroscientists from around the world are determined to find it – with some MASSIVE help from Australia.

Monash Uni’s MASSIVE facility – a.k.a. the Multi-modal Australian ScienceS Imaging and Visualisation Environment – is part of Australia’s involvement in the Human Connectome Project (HCP). In the tradition of last century’s Human Genome Project, the HCP is mapping the nerve connections in the human brain, also known as the ‘connectome’.

Led by Washington University, University of Minnesota, and Oxford University, the HCP wants to identify the neural pathways that underlie brain function, behaviour and personality, and link these back to genetics. To do this, it is publishing data from high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of about 1200 people from 300 families.

Mapping such a vast array of neural connections is going to take some serious computing power. As part of the Monash Technology Research Platforms (MTRP), MASSIVE is helping to host the data produced by this ambitious project locally for Australian researchers – which aims at nothing less than transforming our understanding of the human brain in health and disease.

MTRP’s MASSIVE facility has hosted a ‘mirror’ of the HCP data here in Australia since October 2015. The mirror site provides critical, large-scale storage space and the many hours of computing time needed to make sense of the enormous amount of MRI data.

Researchers can process the MRI images on the MASSIVE mirror site using built-in software to extract the information they need. Nine research groups from around Australia have already tapped into its wealth of information.

Associate Professor Alex Fornito, a neuropsychologist at Monash, uses MASSIVE to understand the connectivity of the brain’s ‘hub’ regions – regions that have more connections than other areas. Like Heathrow airport directing passengers all over the world, these hubs route information traffic through the brain.

“We simply could not do our studies without the Australian mirror of the HCP,” says Associate Professor Fornito. “Thanks to its availability through MASSIVE, members of my lab require only a notebook computer to log in and gain full access to the storage, computing power and time we need.”

Another neuroscientist who appreciates the mirror site is Dr Marta Garrido, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function at the University of Queensland.

“My lab focuses on understanding […] which brain pathways are engaged when something unexpected happens,” says Dr Garrido. “These analyses require a lot of computing power, so access to supercomputers like MASSIVE is critical.”

The staff at MASSIVE also collaborate with other centrally managed, open-access MTRP research facilities, such as the Ramaciotti Centre for Cryo Electron Microscopy. Their Titan electron microscope produces incredibly detailed images that result in huge amounts of data. Without the computing power of MASSIVE, Titan’s data would be far harder to handle and share with researchers, students and industry across the sciences.