In a world first, Spain is to use a nanotechnology microscope for brain studies
as part of the Blue Brain project. The initiative is CSIC researcher Javier
de Felipe's brainchild, and researchers at the Universidad
Politécnica de Madrid's School of Computing are developing a series
of tools to analyse and interpret microscope data.
About thirty Spanish researchers are participating in the international Blue
Brain project. The project's aim is to build a functional model of the mammalian
brain through computer simulations. Spain's project leaders are Javier de Felipe
and UPM School of Computing professor José María Peña.
The nanotechnology microscope to be applied to brain studies is to be set up
at the Centre of Biomedical Technology based at the UPM's Montegancedo Campus
and will operational as of June.
The use of this microscope signifies a major technological advance. On one
hand, electron microscopes provide a limited detail level for brain cells studies.
On the other, the nanotech microscope outputs samples of brain tissue in just
two hours, something that, using other technologies, it would take two technicians
a year to do.
The Spanish Blue Brain project team has acquired the microscope after a series
of successful tests run at the manufacturer's headquarters. It will be paid
for from the 25 million euro credit that the Spanish Government granted the
Blue Brain project.
Spanish participation in the Blue Brain project focuses on two key aspects:
i) neuroanatomy, a line of research developed by the Cajal Institute to capture
data about the working and reactions of certain parts of the brain, and ii)
development of the technology to visualize the complex results of this research.
Javier de Felipe leads the first research line, whereas José María
Peña's team is developing the tools required to analyse the optical and
electron microscope images output by the neuroanatomy research. 3D imaging will
be used to visualize results.
The UPM's School of Computing team is to analyse the data using high-performance
computing techniques running on the Magerit supercomputer based at the UPM-based
Supercomputing and Visualization Centre of Madrid (CeSViMa). There is potential
for the application of these technological developments in other disciplines
in the future.
A promising future
Thanks to the simulations run by this team, it will be possible to observe
the working and behaviour of the brain in the case of diseases like depression
or Alzheimer. Also researchers will be able to test responses to new drugs on
these computer models.
"The ultimate aim of the Blue Brain project," the Spanish researchers
explained, "is to provide the scientific community with a simulation tool
for developing basic and clinical research into brain structure and function."
Future neuroscientists will know how the brain forms, develops and ages or
understand its learning mechanisms thanks partly to Blue Brain research.
Cajal Blue Brain
After Switzerland, Spain is the only country to have joined the project. It
accounts for about a fifth of project knowledge generation.
Spanish participation is channelled through the Cajal Blue Brain initiative.
Apart from the UPM and the CSIC, its members number another twelve scientific
groups from different Spanish research institutes and organizations: Instituto
de Investigaciones Biomédicas de Barcelona run by the Consejo Superior
de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Universidad de Castilla La Mancha,
Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Universidad del País Vasco, Universidad
de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Hospital Ramón y Cajal de Madrid and Hospital
Carlos Haya de Málaga.
Other Blue Brain partners are the University of Jerusalem, which offers expertise
in modelling the electrical properties of synaptic integration; the University
of Nevada, Reno, which specializes in modelling the electrical properties of
neurons; the University of Yale, which provides the Neuron simulator, and the
University of London, which offers expertise in neocortical electrophysiology
The Blue Brain project got under way in 2005, when L'École Polytechnique
Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland) and IBM announced a project
to create a functional model of the brain using the Blue Gene supercomputer.
The UPM and the CSIC joined the Blue Brain consortium in 2008.