Supercomputer Aurora 21 will map the human brain, starting in 2021

Aurora 21 will help the US keep pace among the other nations who own the fastest supercomputers. Scientists plan on using it to map the connectome of the human brain.

Between your ears lies a miracle of nature, with more connections than our galaxy has stars. In the past, the idea of mapping the connectome—or the interconnected neuronal pathways of the brain (the white matter), was thought impossible. Now, a group of scientists are planning to do just that. How? They plan on using an oncoming supercomputer with tremendous power. Should they be successful, it could stand as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. And that’s just one of the project's scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are planning, with Aurora 21 (A21).


Intel, IBM, and other tech giants are currently working together to create this mind-blowing supercomputer that’ll run a quintillion operations simultaneously. This will be the first exascale supercomputer in the US. It’s set to go live in 2021. Originally, the US Department of Energy (DOE) reported a 2023 unveiling. But when China announced it was to have its own (exascale supercomputer) by 2020, the DOE stepped up its schedule. Those involved with the project say it’s humming along and should be completed on time.

A21 will have a computing power of 1 exaflop. The US, Japan, and China have been in something of a supercomputer arms race. For now, China has the top model, the Sunway TaihuLight in Wuxi. It runs at 200 million billion petaflops. Aurora 21 will surpass this. It’s currently being built at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.

According to Science Magazine, “IBM and its partner NVIDIA, the makers of Summit, have focused on marrying central processing units (CPUs) with graphical processing units, which are faster and more efficient for calculations involved in complex visual simulations. Intel and Cray, meanwhile, have long aimed to increase the number of CPU ‘cores’ operating in parallel and creating fast links between them.”

Axonal nerve fibers in a real brain. Image credit: jgmarcelino from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, Wikipedia Commons.

A21 is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It’ll take up a quarter acre of land, require thousands of miles of wires, and is expected to consume enough power to light a midsize city. Experts say either China or Japan is likely to develop the world’s first exascale supercomputer, but that A21 will make sure the US keeps up with its closest competitors.

There are lots of projects on the docket already, besides mapping the connectome. Others projects include understanding how gases flow during combustion, how galaxies form, and how plasma reacts in a fusion reactor. A21 will also forecast the weather and predict how new medicines might react inside the body. In sum total, it’ll be a huge windfall for physics and science in general.

Neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri will be a part of this connectome project, some 100 million neurons altogether, approximately. It would do so by piecing together millions of 2-dimensional images to make a 3-dimensional picture of the brain’s white matter. Kasthuri and colleagues plan on mapping a number of different brains, not just one.

They don’t know how much one will vary from the next and they’re excited to see the differences among age groups. Researchers believe the results will give us greater insights into human psychology, thinking, learning, and behavior, and help us better understand all sorts of conditions, such as autism and schizophrenia.

To hear the announcement by the DOE of the creation of this supercomputer, click here:

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.