A journey through the brain

Chad Johnson and Nathan Cohen working together at a microscope.

Chad Johnson and Nathan Cohen working together at a microscope. Image credit: Agnieszka Swiejkowska.

Nathan Cohen was interested in the way a microscope can be focused in and out of the depth of a tissue sample. Brain sections in the lab are typically cut to a thickness of 50μm. This means you may have several layers of brain cells (the cell body might be 10-20μm wide) within a section, with their processes extending through the sample in three dimensions.

When Nathan returned to Oxford, he explored this interest through interviews with five scientists in the lab and by working on a microscope with Chad Johnson. A number of z-stacks were taken; this is a series of images through the depth (z-plane) of a section. The video installation developed from this work will no doubt be an interesting journey.
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Never stop questioning…

An example of the pattern of electrical activity of a neuron.

An example of the pattern of electrical activity of a neuron.

Guest Post by Christiana Kazakou

This collaboration aroused many questions on how art and science can be integrated, and produced results that would never have existed without their interconnection. Through observing the different work processes, it is exciting to perceive how this very special machine, an organ of 1.2kg containing one hundred billion nerve cells, can generate ideas, analyse concepts, create challenges and produce miraculous creative results.

Following our visit to the various labs at the Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit in Oxford, I was trying to understand the connections between scientific discoveries and to think of new ways to bring science out of the laboratories; how to challenge scientific ideas and interpret data through a different pair of glasses. I was really fascinated by the unknown, the unpredictable, and I was open to those observations. As a result, different concepts and ideas were derived throughout our visits and interaction with the scientists. Questioning was the main motto when the spark of the electrophysiological recording techniques became my main resource for this collaboration. At times the visuals of the recordings reminded me of statistical diagrams and the light was positively inspiring. Light can be both obvious and mysterious; it generates a luminous and radiant energy, an electromagnetic radiation to which the organs of sight react.

Christiana Kazakou, Neuroelectricity (detail), mixed media sculpture, 2012

Christiana Kazakou, Neuroelectricity (detail), mixed media sculpture, 2012

‘Neuroelectricity’ was born out of research that focuses on the recordings of neuronal activity from sites in the basal ganglia. The data obtained from recording neurons in the striatum and globus pallidus can give new insights into how the brain works at the single-cell and network level. This piece aims to represent the voltage in our brains and consider the concept of electrical radiation of our souls. It takes a structure of neuro electric power that can influence our emotions and energies as well as our fire for knowledge and human understanding. After all, our brains produce a certain amount of electricity, which is not to be ignored…

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Albert Einstein

Refer to this previous post for more about Christiana’s visit with scientists in the Basal Ganglia lab.

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“Incremental steps”

Sketch one: Incremental steps

Guest Post by Agnieszka Tamiola

It’s only a week until the exhibition. It strikes me that much of the work involved in this project is going to be edited out. I’d like to share two of my sketches and a print as an insight into how I have been developing my work. These are examples of little steps that contributed to the piece I am going to show. I think about these in terms of incremental steps, to quote the founding member of the lab Professor Paul Bolam. This is the expression he used in the interview while commenting on the nature of scientific discovery. The exhibition will be similar to having a research paper published; it’s an opportunity to share findings, and our efforts from the studio or the lab respectively, with the outside world.

In the first sketch ‘Incremental steps’ I am trying to capture the often collaborative nature of scientific endeavour. While in the print ‘Personal contributions’ the scientists behind the slides are brought to the viewers’ attention. These two aspects have been developed for a final 3D piece and a projection.

The last sketch ‘Freezing’ is an attempt to visually capture the motor impairment caused by the death of dopamine neurons. I imposed on myself a set of rules and used the subsequent limitations to create an abstract image.

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Many glossy postcards to distribute

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The brain everywhere else

The dendritic form of a plant root system

The dendritic form of a plant root system. Image credit: Marta Santuccio.

Guest Post by Marta Santuccio

This project was born as an attempt to understand myself, and the world we live in.  It is a response to the work scientists carry out at the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit. In some way I could say I am looking at the same thing in the opposite manner, with a macroscope rather than a microscope.

At the Unit, scientists tap daily into the realm of the infinite by analyzing dendritic neurons in minuscule fractions of sliced brain. So far, nothing strange. However, looking at these dendrites under a microscope I discovered things of much bigger scales. Looking down through the lens and into the slides I could see trees and forests, rivers with tributaries, lightning… I could see the whole world in a tiny fragment of brain. Suddenly everything was a reflection of the same.Then a vortex of questions hit me like a train. Who are we? What is the world we live in made out of? What is our connection with the greater universe? Could scientists at this lab be looking at virtually the same thing as scientists at CERN? And what about everything in between these seemingly unrelated dimensions of life?

The collection of images I’m presenting aims to make visual associations between the brain and everything else. My list is not exhaustive, only indicative of how common this phenomena is. It should be seen as a documentation of my research.

Obviously I have not found a definitive answer to my questions, but infinite repetitions.

Refer to this previous post for more about Marta’s conversations with scientists at the ANU or check out this interesting review article about neurons and their dendritic structure in visual culture.

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On the right track

When investigating the electrical activity of brain cells, researchers often translate their electrical recordings into sound, because it can be easier to initially distinguish specific differences audibly than by looking at firing patterns on a screen.

example firing pattern of a dopamine neuron

Example firing pattern of a dopamine neuron.

Artist Serena Porrati found these processes and the recordings interesting, and consulted audio engineer Jez Wells from the University of York to produce sound pieces as her contribution to A Nervous Encounter.

Jez described the possibilities when working with these tracks:

One of the fascinating things about the sound (along with the technology we now have for manipulating it) is the way that it scales up and down, in terms of time: we can zoom in and make milliseconds last for minutes, or we can make hours flash by in the blink of an eye. A series of quasi-rhythmic clicks can become a pitched sound, the individual oscillations of a pitched sound can be heard as individual audio events in time. The raw materials from this project have real potential to be explored in this way.

This approach of using sound in order to perceptualise data is called sonification and is often utilised in research (the audio counterpart of visualisation). One example is the geiger counter, a device which detects radioactive particles and converts this detection into an auditory readout.

Quite different from the Parkinson’s disease (PD) research carried out in the Basal Ganglia Lab, there are a number of researchers that use algorithms, including sound analysis, as potential diagnostic protocols for PD. For example research using computer drawing tablets and recorded voice analysis to analyse tremor. Technology is amazing!

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The sounds of science

The overall environment of the biomedical lab was what caught Eleanor Fawcett’s attention. Aside from the archived slide boxes stacking the shelves, the lab was filled with amusing novelty. Inhabitants working industriously at their experiments, handling their pipettes and flasks, and using many pieces of quite regular equipment (to them), that make a variety of sounds.

With an interest in rhythm and repetition, Ellie returned to the lab with microphones to record these noises. Unfortunately the workers were not always that good at keeping quiet so she no doubt ended up with some hilarious snippets of conversations too, as the scientists panicked at bottles of buffer solutions being found empty, moaned about frustrating data analysis, and laughed (or whispered) curiously at the fact Ellie was recording the sounds of the lab…

Ellie and Gareth at the fumehood



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Part II: Blurring boundaries while staying focused

Guest Post by Louise Beer

The universe had existed for billions of years before we, or anything that we know of, ever had the brain capacity to question and attempt to understand the nature and complexity of it.

Through our exploration, from the molecular level to the farthest reaches of space, I think we sometimes forget that it is the human brain’s advancement through evolution that makes our quest of knowledge possible.

Through this collaboration I am using epifluorescent microscopic photographs as a starting point, to provide an optical illusion of various mythical locations in space. However, these photographs are in fact from minute areas of a section of brain tissue. Not only are we seeing space when we look to the skies, but we are also seeing our own progress.

I found the most interesting aspect of collaborating with these scientists to be the complete contrast in ways of understanding the same image. I saw something where they saw something completely different. Where they perceived errors of process I saw a visual description of the edge of our universe. Where they could read copious amounts of scientific data, I saw obstacles and impracticalities. Drawing together two polar points of view and two completely different educational perspectives helped to define a path for making the artwork I had envisaged.

Refer to this previous post for more about Louise’s visit to use a microscope at the ANU.

Louise Beer, The End of Beginning, C-Type Print, 2012.

Louise Beer, The End of Beginning, C-Type Print, 2012


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Gradually, things are coming together

This week A Nervous Encounter artists were asked to submit their text and images for the exhibition catalogue. This will document the interactions and production of artworks resulting from the collaboration.

It’s been amazing to see and read their responses. Some words are being drafted by scientists for the catalogue too.

When interviewed by Nature recently Bill Viola said it nicely:

Art and science are like a couple sharing the same dance floor but hearing different versions of a song.

Oh yes, it’s all very exciting.

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Part I: Blurring boundaries while staying focused

Microscope expert Chad Johnson spent time with Louise Beer scanning through some gorgeous fluorescently labelled brain sections prepared by Kouichi Nakamura. Kouichi’s research is on the thalamus, which is a key brain region involved in sensory perception and regulation of motor function.

On the slides Chad and Louise were looking at, a series of molecular markers had been used in a process called immunofluorescence to illustrate different (neuro)chemical architectures between thalamic nuclei to try and understand their function.

Part of Louise’s interest in this work was due to the remarkable magnifications possible with this sort of microscope, with an intriguing comparison to telescopes used to look at very large objects great distances from us in space. This leads on to observations about scale and universal form, and the diversity in what can be seen in these magnified worlds. Obviously what we see down a microscope isn’t just objective (lens).

Purkinje neuron

A fluorescently labelled purkinje neuron. Image credit: Kouichi Nakamura.

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