Beauty Isn’t Meninges Deep
Neuroscientists on the looks of the brain and its parts
“A convoluted mass of gray and white matter.”
It’s easy to view the brain as a soggy, somewhat repellent heap of warm biological pudding. But when you really get inside the supple pink mass, layers of neurons (or “butterflies of the soul” as their discoverer Ramón y Cajal called them), gleaming axons, branching dendrites, and countless complex sub-structures reveal the brain’s undeniably exquisite (and ancient) architecture.
Studying the brain is somewhat like studying astrophysics; Investigators are burdened with the task of picking apart a complex universe of myriad micro and macro forms about which they know relatively little. The gaps in knowledge start with the very small (i.e. does neuron X interact with neuron Y through electrical coupling or a chemical synapse? Is it inhibitory or excitatory? etc…) and inflate as the lens gets wider (What is going on in Alzheimer’s disease? What is sleep for? How are reflexes timed?). There is no Einsteinian figure that has provided a binding theoretical foundation that illuminates the functioning of the brain, and, like quantum physics, some fields leave remarkably much to be desired (what the hell is “Consciousness?”).
Neuroscientists are often forced to decide which area of the brain to study early in their careers. While they aren’t destined to choose one spot and stick to it, they often find themselves consumed by a single region of choice, lightheartedly pointing out its superlative qualities at dinner parties and lab meetings. Many factors go into the decision. Some areas, like the neocortex, offer appealing theoretical conundrums about “higher order” cognitive processing, thinking, and identity. Others have been implicated in debilitating, unhealthy behavioral patterns (i.e. the insula and addiction) and may thus appeal to the more righteous of the brainoids – those who tirelessly look for cures and neurological therapies. Those interested in sexual behavior have a handful of choices as well (the caudate nucleus, the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, etc).
Nevertheless, it often seems as though researchers are drawn to certain aesthetic aspects of brain regions, even if the functional aspects are of primary interest.
• At a recent lecture I attended at the University of Pennsylvania, the gifted neuroscientist Rachel Wilson commented on the remarkable “order” of vertebrate chemosensory neurons before she spoke about her research on sensory processing in the fruit fly olfactory system. The neurons that line the fruit fly’s antennal lobe are positioned in a tight, repeated pattern. Wilson often publishes gorgeously stained photos of the chemosensory neurons of the fruit fly antenna, such as the one seen here to the right– and she’s clearly drawn to their visual splendor.
• “Order,” it seems, is an attractive attribute. Javier Medina (the neuroscientist I work for) of The University of Pennsylvania often champions the coral-like, tightly-folded cerebellum for its functional worth as well as its graceful, structured beauty.
Medina recently disclosed to me one reason why he studies the cerebellum instead of the ever-popular cortex: ” [in the cortex] More than anything, you find silent cells…cells that don’t like to talk much, fire an electrical impulse here or there, but for the most part, keep quiet. For all the hoopla about it, the cortex is a sort of boring place… but if you dig your electrodes deeper, you’ll discover a neurophysiologist’s wonderland. The cerebellum is never silent.” The cerebellum is an exciting place indeed, with its “star-like stellate cells,” illuminating chandelier cells, and “gazillions of little granule cells, packed together like sardines.” Furthermore, Dr. Medina is from Spain, and cites Cajal, his compatriot, as a “hero” and a “genius.” Cajal tackled the cerebellum – below is his skillfully detailed sketch of the cerebellum’s Purkinje cells, with their characteristic labyrinthine trellis of interlaced dendrites:
• The unique appearance of certain brain regions has sometimes played a role in their naming. The hippocampus was given its distinctive moniker because of a physical resemblance to the sea horse, which itself shares a name with the half-horse, half-serpent creature of Greek Mythology.
• The structure of the enigmatic organ as a whole can actually be quite appealing as well.
Cognitive scientist and author Mark Changizi, of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, alludes to the beauty found in the diversity of brains across species, writing, “brains differing by several orders of magnitude in size look so different that a visiting alien would have no idea they’re the same organ at all.” His new research looks at the meandering twists and turns (“back bends”) that brain tissue must take in order to accommodate parallel increases in body and brain size across evolutionary time. Those bends can be seen in the dolphin brain below, which he’s quick to describe as “gorgeous.”
From the iconic pop culture image of a brain in jar, to it’s oft-satirized role as zombie food, the brain is not usually known for its beauty. But when we synthesize our knowledge of the organ’s extraordinary abilities with glances into its intricate inner architecture, the brain is revealed as a truly unequaled natural wonder.