Modern War-fMRI : Graphics Cards for Science

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticNov 15, 2011 8:07 AM


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Videogames and neuroscience have a rocky relationship.

On the one hand you have Susan Greenfield and her games-hurt-the-brain theory. But she's not representative of neuroscientists as a whole: games have also helped neuroscience, for example, in this study of the neural correlates of "flow" experiences.

Now neuroscientists have another reason to be thankful for games, according to a new paper. It turns out that modern 3D graphics cards - which mostly exist in order to render videogame visuals - can be used to do fMRI data analysis.

According to Sweden's Eklund et al, a graphics card can perform intensive fMRI analysis hundreds of times faster than a regular processor of the equivalent speed, because graphics processors make use of parallel computing optimized for 3D images and that's ultimately what all brain scans are.

They developed a way to run non-parametric statistical analyses of brain imaging data. Proponents say that non-parametric stats have many advantages over conventional parametric ones - and they're certainly becoming increasingly popular. But they involve doing far more calculations. Thousands of times more, in some cases.

It turns out though that armed with 2.5 GHz CPU and three NVidia GTX 480s, and making use of NVidia's graphics programming language, they were able to cut the time to analyse one person's brain with 100,000 permutations, from 24 hrs to just 9 minutes. The whole setup cost $4000, so it's not cheap, but they say it's "a fraction of the price for a PC cluster with equivalent computational performance" i.e. one relying on lots of general purpose processors, rather than graphics cards. Even on GTX480 did the job very well.

Best of all, this gives neuroscientists an excuse to spend their grant money on awesome gaming rigs. Why do I want the latest GForce on my work computer? To do non-parametric data analysis, obviously. Sure, it would also allow me to run Modern Warfare 3 at the highest settings... but that's not why I want it.

Eklund A, Andersson M, Knutsson H (2011). Fast random permutation tests enable objective evaluation of methods for single-subject FMRI analysis. International journal of biomedical imaging, 2011 PMID: 22046176

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