Canadian Leadership in Brain Research Driven by Access to High Performance Computing


The essential role supercomputing can play in supporting breakthrough discoveries and driving vital research was showcased recently through two exciting announcements involving McGill researcher and Compute Canada user Dr. Alan Evans.

Late last month, the human brain atlas, a collaboration between Canadian and German researchers through the international Human Brain Project, was announced as one of the Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies by MIT Technology Review. Evans, a researcher with the Montreal Neurological Institute, and Dr. Katrin Amunts from the Jülich Research Centre in Germany, led the creation of the revolutionary new 3D brain model, which is nearly 50 times the resolution, in each of three spatial dimensions, of previous models. Millions of hours of data processing time on Compute Canada resources were used to help complete the project.

Then, last week, Evans was awarded a grant of $2.5 million to support his research of the abnormal structural and functional connections involved in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and fragile-x syndrome (FXS). Analyzing the disordered “wiring” between different brain regions in these conditions involves massive amounts of computation and Evans will be using his CBRAIN portal to access the Compute Canada network.

“Neuroscience is increasingly becoming ‘big science’. We need powerful computational resources to reduce the huge amounts of imaging and genetic data to meaningful knowledge about brain development and disease,” said Evans. “Without Compute Canada’s support, much of our lab’s work would be impossible.”

“Compute Canada congratulates the Human Brain Project team and Dr. Alan Evans on these milestone events. These announcements are not only exciting accomplishments for the researchers, but also excellent examples of how high performance computing, as a part of an integrated and comprehensive digital infrastructure ecosystem, is essential to driving Canadian excellence in research and capacity for innovation,” said Dugan O’Neil, Compute Canada Chief Science Officer. “Compute Canada is committed to supporting our world-class researchers so that they can continue to push the boundaries of what we know, and unlock more breakthrough discoveries that will benefit our lives.”

The brain atlas, which took nearly a decade to complete, required slicing a donated brain into thousands of thin sections and then digitally stitching them back together with the help of supercomputers. The fine-grained resolution of this latest brain model will allow scientists to gain insights into the neurobiological basis of cognition, language, emotions and other processes. Access to the atlas’ dataset is provided through the CBRAIN Portal, which Evans and his team developed at McGill University using funding from CANARIE, Canada’s advanced research and innovation network. In addition to the human brain atlas, the other Top 10 contenders in MIT’s Technology Review included ultraprivate smartphones, smart wind and solar power, agile robots, the Oculus Rift (a head-mounted immersive virtual reality display), and microscale 3-D printing machines. The MIT Technology Review article on the brain atlas can be found here.

Evans’ grant from the Azrieli Neurodevelopmental Research Program was made possible through funding from The Azrieli Foundation, the Brain Canada Foundation and the Government of Canada through the Canada Brain Research Fund. The Azrieli Neurodevelopmental Research Program aims to develop new diagnostics, treatment and prevention strategies for ASD and FXS disorders. In addition to Evans, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg, also from McGill University, was awarded a $1.2 million grant from this new program to test treatment strategies for ASD and FXS. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the announcement of the grants on May 1, following a tour of Sonenberg’s lab at McGill’s Life Sciences Complex.