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GALLERY: The Art of Neuroscience vol. II

[ 3 ] October 26, 2010

Scenes of nature have often been inspiration for human works of art, from prehistoric cave paintings to Rubens’ country landscapes.  Now, modern technology has taken us from these large scenes  of nature – rolling hills and buffalo-speckled plains – to the imperceptibly small scenes of nature:  The microscopic inner workings of our body.  We have featured art by artists inspired by these tiny scenes, specifically the scenes in our brains, but in The Art of Neuroscience series we are featuring “art by scientists.”

In our second volume of The Art of Neuroscience, we’ll take a peek into another newly developed neuron-labeling method that yields some rather striking images while also helping to elucidate the architecture of the brain.

Fluorescent microscopy works by labeling cells with specific markers that cause them to glow certain colors when bathed in a special wash of chemical agents (fluorophores).  These “markers” are usually genetic markers, and by tinkering with the genome of a host animal, the markers – and thus the colors produced by cells under the microscope – can be altered.  Driven by a desire to map the vast web of neural connections in the mouse brain,  Jeff Lichtman and his team at Harvard developed a fluorescent staining technique affording them a sizeable palette with which to paint neurons.

The genetic system they used is called the Cre/lox system. Cre is an enzyme responsible for deleting sections of DNA that are adjacent to lox alleles.  By splicing in a handful genetic markers that are responsible for different fluorescent colors (green, yellow, red, etc) in various places near the lox sites, a game of genetic roulette was played – depending on the position of different fluorescent color-producing genes in relation to the lox enzymes, a myriad of colors would ultimately be produced in the target neurons (i.e. red green green yellow, red red red green, red yellow yellow yellow, etc).

Lichtman cleverly dubs the technique “Brainbow,” and explains its application to discovering neuron connections:

The ability of the Brainbow system to label uniquely many individual cells within a population may facilitate the analysis of neuronal circuitry on a large scale… This labeling appears well suited for visualization and tracing of large numbers of neurons and their connectivity…color differences between neurons provide a way to sort their processes while tracing through sections, to directly visualize their putative synaptic interactions, and to distinguish the neurons that converge onto a postsynaptic cell.

The gallery below shows a sampling of the lush, elegant views of neural networks provided by the Brainbow technique.

If Monet was a neuroscientist he would surely be partial to this cutting-edge method.

Images/Jean Livet, Tamily A. Weissman, Hyuno Kang, Ryan W. Draft, Ju Lu, Robyn A. Bennis, Joshua R. Sanes & Jeff W. Lichtman. “Transgenic strategies for combinatorial expression of fluorescent proteins in the nervous system,” Nature. Vol. 450, (November 2007), Pages 56-63.

GALLERY: The Art of Neuroscience vol. I

[ 0 ] September 9, 2010

In our first installment of The Art of Neuroscience, a recurring online gallery series here at The Beautiful Brain that will feature outstanding images of the brain produced by science, we are given a taste of a newly developed neuron-staining technique that reveals entire, glowing networks of neurons.  By using protein markers derived from the rabies virus, James  Marshel, Takuma Mori, Kristina Nielsen and Edward Callaway, of The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, were able to label the networks of neurons each cell relies on to manage its activity.  While neurons only have two destinies at a given moment – fire or don’t – they collect information from thousands of other neurons to make their decision.

The researchers were able to do this because of the nature of rabies – it follows a “retrograde” infection pathway, infecting one neuron and subsequently all the neurons giving it orders upstream.  By using striking fluorescent dyes, Marshel et al labeled the rabies proteins and illuminated these webs of neurons:

“Each single neuronal network exists in a tangled web of as many as trillions of connections between billions of neurons spanning the entire brain, confounding attempts to identify detailed circuits and relate circuits to functions in vivo. We sought to overcome this logistical barrier and facilitate the direct analysis of the fine-scale structure and function of single neuronal networks by developing and validating a robust and reliable technique to target a single neuron and its monosynaptic inputs for independent gene expression and detailed cell labeling (Marshel et al, 2010).”

Images/ Marshel, James H., Mori, Takuma, Nielsen, Kristina J. and Callaway, Edward M. “Targeting Single Neuronal Networks for Gene Expression and Cell Labeling In Vivo,” Neuron. Vol. 67 Issue 4, (August 2010), Pages 562-574.

GALLERY: Andrew Carnie

[ 4 ] August 22, 2010

British artist Andrew Carnie, the focus of this month’s Beautiful Brain Podcast, often creates work that is time-based in nature, involving 35mm slide projections onto complex screen configurations.

His latest project, Dendritic Forms, which is currently showing at the GV Art Gallery in London, is a body of work that investigates the visual motifs of trees and organic matter that is mirrored within the human brain. Here we present a collection of Carnie’s brain-themed work from throughout his career. For more information, make sure to tune into this month’s podcast.


GALLERY + INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Jameson

[ 14 ] July 4, 2010

Elizabeth Jameson found her art when her own brain lost one of its most basic functions.

After suddenly finding herself unable to speak, Jameson was diagnosed with MS in 1991. She soon came to know the geography of her own mind through countless MRI sessions.

Jameson felt a hunger to step beyond her career as a lawyer and reinterpret this medical imagery, adding an artistic treatment to her brain scans in what has become a unique form of portraiture. Jameson writes that her MS inspires her “to create images that provide new insights into the brain and, at the same time, makes medical imaging and its representative humanity more accessible to both medical professionals and others who view these revealing pictures.”

Most recently, the Harvard Center for Brain Science has commissioned the installation of four of Jameson’s paintings. We are proud to feature Jameson’s work in this exclusive online gallery as well as an interview with the artist below.




How did you arrive at your present moment as an artist who is deeply engaged with her own brain and the brains of others?

I became fascinated by the brain when I suddenly lost my ability to talk. It happened when I was playing with my children at a local park.  I had no pain but, with absolutely no warning, I found I could not speak. The next week, surgeons removed a part of my brain in order to determine the origin of my aphasia. I was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then, in order to monitor the progression of the disease, I have spent many hours in the darkness of the scanning machine, during innumerable MRIs (brain scans).

My diagnosis and treatment gave rise to a keen interest in medical technology and inspired me to create images that interpret the medical images in a new light. For the anxious patient, the MRI images can appear ugly and frightening—a bunch of black and grey pixels spelling out their fate. I felt a strong urge to reinterpret these images—to use them to explore the wonder and beauty of all brains including those with a disease. My images create an artist’s view of imaging technology–one that is both accessible to those who view these revealing pictures as either subject or doctor and also one that, I hope, captures some of the feeling and emotions evoked by these kinds of medical images.

I discovered art after my diagnosis. Prior to this time, I was a civil rights lawyer.

Describe one or two of the works we see in the online gallery. Where is it derived from and what led you to select this particular imagery? How does the image of the brain– first seen through medical imagery– change once you start working with it?

My artwork derives largely from my own MRI or brain scans. My two favorite etchings, Valentine and Emerging, deal with the exquisite nature of the structures of the brain.

Emerging is a cropped image of my frontal lobe and inter-hemispheric fissure. In this image, my brain and the skull are emerging from  the quiet of my interior self and entering into the world outside. This image captures the mystery and magic of the brain and asks us to meditate on where the brain is going on its journey.

Valentine I is another cropped image – this time of my brain stem, cerebellum and corpus callosum.  I chose this portion of the brain because of its shape– the structure that echoes that of the human heart. I use warm and cool colors in my work to evoke the emotions that I feel when I immerse myself in the interior of the brain, and to express my happiness in discovering the image of the heart within the interiors of my brain.

What do you find beautiful about the brain?

I continually find myself humbled and awed by the layer upon layers of mysterious and imponderable structures that comprise the brain. I find beauty in its mystery.

Do you think the brain will ever understand itself, or is this organ too vastly complex to grasp its own workings?

I am comforted by the fact that I believe my brain knows exactly what it is doing. I have never felt that I needed to fight my disease or the repercussions of having an imperfect brain. Instead, I use my art to celebrate the brain. Without multiple sclerosis, I would never have thought so deeply about this incredibly vital organ. In fact, without MS I would never have discovered my passion for art.

You write that your MS inspires you to create images that provide new insights into the brain. What are the nature of these new insights? Are they insights that can only be achieved through art?

MRIs produce images of a brain that are naked and without emotional context, without passion or sadness, without all the frailties, humor, and idiosyncrasies that make us who we are. I feel I am enormously lucky that my art allows me to spend my time hunting for images where I can find beauty and sensuousness, as well as perplexing complexity.

More generally, do you see an ultimate division between the ambitions of science and of art, or do you feel they are exploring the same issues at their cores?

I really don’t know. I imagine scientists are trying to discover the mysteries of the brain, while I am trying to present and interpret the beauty in that mystery.  I like to think that we are all approaching the study of the brain with the same degree of humility and awe.

GALLERY: The Cortical Garden of Pablo Garcia Lopez

[ 8 ] May 14, 2010

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, was born on May 1, 1852 in Navarre, Spain. To celebrate his month of birth we’ll be posting a series of pieces dedicated to his work as well as the work of scientists and artists inspired by his pioneering research and use of visual metaphors to describe the brain.

One such artist is Pablo Garcia Lopez, whose mixed media art is a direct reaction to the life and work of Cajal. Lopez explores the dialogue between neuroscience and visual art in his latest project, The Cortical Garden (developed at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and funded by Caixa Galicia Foundation), which is directly inspired by the words of Cajal:

“The cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells, that can multiply their branches thanks to an intelligent cultivation, sending their roots deeper and producing more exquisite flowers and fruits every day.” (Cajal, 1894)

Lopez’s work, seen below, infuses medical imagery of the brain with thrilling biological analogies, using the themes of sprouting, branching, butterflies and flowers to seamlessly move from gardens to neurons and back again. In his own words, the work seen below explores “the role of visual metaphors in scientific research. Visual metaphors are not only used to divulge and popularize scientific knowledge, but they also are a source of inspiration to create new scientific hypotheses.”

39 Brains Forming a Flower | Paper (silkscreened); Diameter (85 inches) | Pablo Garcia Lopez, 2010 PET Soul Butterflies | Silkscreen, photo printing and crystal beads on black plexiglass, 51x51 inches | Lopez, 2009 Nerve Section | Plastic pipe, copper wire | Lopez, 2009Golden PET | Silkscreen and bowties on plexiglass, 51x51 inches | Lopez, 2009Wig | Silk and hair styling gel, 6x8.5x5 inches | Lopez, 2009Brainy Flowers | 6x8.5x5 | Lopez, 2009Butterfly Bats | Onyx stone pigment on black plexiglass, 51x51 inches | Lopez, 2009Sculpting the Wall | Silk and hair styling gel, 100x100 inches | Lopez, 2009Photo 4 (Serie 2), Cortical Garden Series | Digital photograph printed on aquarella paper (archival inkjet print) | Lopez, 2009


“Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly coloured butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may some day– who knows– clarify the secrets of mental life” (Cajal, 1923).

Lopez is also a published Cajal scholar: click here to download a PDF of a March 2010 paper he authored in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy entitled “The Histological Slides and Drawings of Cajal.”

For more of Lopez’s work, visit his official website, and stay tuned to The Beautiful Brain for more Cajal-inspired content in the next weeks.

GALLERY + INTERVIEW: Geoffrey Koetsch

[ 1 ] May 2, 2010
Koetsch at work in his studio.

Koetsch at work in his studio.

Geoffrey Koetsch is an interdisciplinary artist who is interested in how new developments in the cognitive sciences affect our understanding of human identity and the physical body it exists in.

In 2008, Koetsch curated an exhibition at the Laconia Gallery in Boston entitled Mind Matters which presented the work of contemporary artists who are turning to neuroscience for inspiration and source material (three of these artists were featured in last month’s gallery and podcast here).

Koetsch is currently a professor at the Art Institute at Lesley University where he teaches advanced sculpture and courses in asian art and culture. His work has been shown in over 80 local, regional and national exhibitions and he has received over 20 awards and commissions. His work was the subject of a PBS Special Report on Theater of Kinetic Sculpture in 1987 and is currently housed in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, The Danforth Museum, Franklin Furnace Archives, the National Institute of Design, Abmedabad, India and the Fine Arts Academy in New Delhi.

I spoke to Geoffrey recently via telephone about his work and his thoughts on the dialogue between art and science. You can listen to the interview below, and scroll down further to see images of Geoffrey’s work and read his artist’s statement.





IN-BETWEEN | Geoffrey KoetschNode | Geoffrey KoetschIN-BETWEEN | Geoffrey KoetschIN-BETWEEN | Geoffrey KoetschBETWEEN | Geoffrey KoetschBETWEEN | Geoffrey Koetsch



The work titled KOETSCH AND CHU: IN/BETWEEN was a collaborative project between myself and Jeremy Chu, a Singaporean artist and photographer of Chinese descent. Jeremy and I engaged in what we called a “visual dialog” with the goal of deepening our interpersonal understanding and bridging our gap in age, race, and nationality. Jeremy Chu is Singaporean of Mandarin Chinese descent–I am an American of Anglo-Saxon descent. He was 30–I was 65. Yet on an artistic and intellectual level we were “connected.” And we were friends.

Jeremy and I met about 20 times over the course of this project. To each meeting we brought a specific theme to explore together verbally, and then we would go to our studios to create a visual response to the discussion. We talked about such things as childhood memories, “universal” archetypes such as the maze and the labyrinth, and various other symbols and metaphors.

In ‘IN/BETWEEN” the two seated figures are identical, symbolizing our common humanity. They sit in the lotus position, a symbol of mental concentration, and they hold objects representing childhood memories.


One figure holds a net made of red rubber bands rolled on a spindle.  It was created by Jeremy and represents the web of his Chinese ancestry. Enmeshed in the net are photographs of his Chinese grandmother, the matriarch of the family. the net was made of a particular kind of red rubber band sent from Singapore that Jeremy had played with as a child. The smell and red color evoked fond memories. Our collaboration was, for Jeremy, part of a larger inquiry into personal identity. The net was originally created for Jeremy’s performance titled “The Fisherman’s Net: A Journey Towards Reconciliation” (Boston, 2003).  The second figure holds a ball of my favorite childhood toy: G.I. Joes. I played “shoot ‘em up” until I was 13, well past the gunplay age for most boys. But as an adult, since putting aside toy soldiers, I advocate for peace and international understanding.


In one of our conversations, we focused on the maze, one of Jung’s “universal” archetypes.  For us the mazes represent the attempt of two people to “find their way to one another.” “Koetsch’s Maze” came from the collision of a decorative Chinese dragon motif and a 1920’s era European modernist architectural design. It shows the strong affinity I have always had for Asian culture, Asian art, and Asian spiritual systems (I have at various times and with varying levels of intensity practiced Buddhism and Vedanta). I don’t have any idea where this affinity came from, but the very first time I traveled to Japan I felt very much at home. “Chu’s Maze” was developed from the lattice pattern of a traditional Chinese window frame. It reflects Jeremy’s  search for patterns and structures connected to his Chinese ancestry.

– Geoffrey Koetsch


For more, check out Koetsch’s website and blog.

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