Monday, July 13, 2015

Art brings neural circuitry to light

[I've been a fan of Greg Dunn's work for a long time, so when I heard that his work would be appearing in a Philadelphia museum, and that there would be a media night, I asked the amazing Maria Vita if she could be a THSP correspondent for the event. This is her report!  --Steve]

Dr. Brian Edwards (left) and Dr. Greg Dunn (right) at the 
Mutter Museum’s exhibition preview: Mind Illuminated, Philadelphia, PA
To introduce students to the parts of a neuron, teachers often use two-dimensional drawings or videos with simplified animations of pre and postsynaptic neurons.  Some students even build a neuron out of candy or act out the communication between cells.  But do these lessons and activities genuinely capture the complex web of connections in the brain?  Can our students visualize the transformative neural dynamics behind concepts like plasticity or long-term potentiation?

A new exhibit by Dr. Greg Dunn at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, PA may help to shed some light on the topic, literally!  Dunn earned a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania.  As a graduate student, his artistic experiments included blowing a drop of ink across a piece of paper.  Dunn chose this technique because traditional hand painting failed to capture the neuron’s naturally chaotic treelike branches.  One can view Dunn’s minimalist approach in the silk scrolls below which are now on display at the Mutter Museum.

“Cortex In Ink” Ink used to portray a cross section of cerebral cortex
or “Alzheimer’s Tangles” Gold and ink used to illustrate diseased neurons

Ultimately, Dunn found the exclusive use of ink limiting: A mass of neural fibers could not be portrayed because the individual neurons lost their distinctiveness.  Faced with this obstacle, Dunn and a colleague, Dr. Brian Edwards, an electrical engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, designed a revolutionary technique called reflective microetching.  This complex innovation gives the artists a way to “compose...many neurons” yet “digitally assemble them as individual units.”  The blown ink designs are “hatched” or engraved onto photoresist/photolithography (the same material used to make nanoscale bits on microchips).  These embossed neurons are layered at different angles with the potential to reflect light.  Then the material is metalized or gilded.  To showcase the work, the microengraving is carefully placed in a frame with strategically placed lights.

One impressive and brilliantly lit piece at the Mutter exhibit was the Brainbow Hippocampus - where millions of neurons are clustered. For this particular piece, Dunn was inspired by Harvard studies using fluorescent proteins on mice; however, the anatomy of each neuron comes from his imagination.

Brainbow with colored lights

Without colored lights, the microetchings are thin, steel gold-plated sheets.  This is what the same Brainbow Hippocampus piece looks like without the reflection of colored bulbs.

Brainbow Hippocampus - no light
After turning off the colored bulbs, Dunn waved a flashlight in front of the reflective microetching to demonstrate the transformative powers of light.  Suddenly, the layers of neurons in the microetching became more pronounced and the circuits appeared animated.  This 37 second video clip shows the Brainbow in action:  

This is Dr. Dunn explaining it on a previously web published YouTube video Brainbow Hippocampus

The expression of the microetchings changes as one moves side to side.  Using another piece from the exhibit entitled “Chaotic Connectome,” one can contrast two angles of the same piece. 

Dunn believes this technique captures the energy of neural networks.  Thanks Dr. Greg Dunn and Dr. Brian Edwards for “illuminating” the mind for the public and psychology students nationwide.  Your science-infused artwork helps to clarify the complexity of the brain.  Greg Dunn’s work will be on exhibit at the Mutter Museum from July 3, 2015-January 7, 2016.  See 

More Web published material on this topic -
Greg Dunn’s website:
Introduction to Microetching


Rob McEntarffer said...

Beautiful! Art! Science! Science! Art! Really cool - thanks for doing this, Maria!I'm going to share this with art and science teachers in my district.

mariavita said...

Thanks Rob for your enthusiasm: The folks at Mutter Museum said the fusion of art and science served as a type of "neonaturalism." Here's one more video of a film-maker, Will Drinker, who was at the exhibit, but has also been behind the scenes

Greg has been commissioned by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to build a 8x12 foot sagittal view of the brain. This will be on display in Spring of 2016 - so there is more to come!

Brother Martin High School said...

These pieces of art are very very cool! Especially the gold one needing the colored lights to show all the intricate details. Awesome ideas!