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Brain-art competition shows off neuroscience's aesthetic side

Cambridge Neuroscientist Charlotte Rae decks her MRI scanned brain with Marylin, Andy Warhol style. The resultant stunning piece of art engages the public with research into Parkinson's Disease and is reviewed by Scientific American on the 18th July, 2011 as a top entry.

This art competition is the brain child of Daniel Margulies of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, who:

"wanted to create a forum where neuroscientists could be credited for their innovations and engage in dialogue about the aesthetic possibilities of our fields."

With collegues he formed the The Neuro Bureau—an "open neuroscience" forum on the Web — and helped found the inaugural Brain-Art Competition, earlier this year, which Charlotte entered.

In true Warholian style, Charlotte's image, pictured left, serves to illustrate the rise of brain imaging in popular culture.

Charlotte, pictured right, is a first year PhD student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge For her PhD, supervised by Dr James Rowe, she is investigating the relationship between how we choose our movements, and how we change or stop our movements.  For example, we might reach out and choose to pick up a healthy glass of water rather than a cup of coffee - but if someone tells us that the coffee is decaffienated, we might then choose to put down the glass of water and go for the coffee after all.

And why is Charlotte studying this? Well, we know that patients with Parkinson's disease have difficulty both in choosing their movements, and in changing or stopping their movements, and this can have a severe impact on their everyday life.  So in her PhD, she is investigating what happens in the brain while healthy people choose and stop their movements, and comparing this to what happens in Parkinson patients' brains.  She uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanning to investigate what might be different about the activity of Parkinson patients' brains to healthy people, and this will tell us more about what goes wrong in the brain in this neurodegenerative disease.

Charlotte explains how her image developed and why engaging the public with her research is important to her:

"As cognitive neuroscientists, we often try our experiments out on each other to make sure that they run smoothly before our volunteers participate in a study. The brain scan that I used for the Marylin picture is a structural magnetic resonance image (MRI) of my brain, which was taken when I was scanned by a colleague for their experiment.  At the time it was taken, my college here in Cambridge (Darwin) wanted students to submit images of their research to display in the dining hall, and they were interested in displaying my brain scan.  Although MRI scans are only plain black and white images, they are really quite beautiful and show the anatomy of a living person's brain in exquisite detail.  To display in the dining hall, however, the college wanted something more "artistic" than a simple black and white image. So I thought about how I might combine the brain scan with a famous colourful piece of art, and Warhol's Marylin immediately struck me as the perfect choice.  From then, it was relatively easy to pick out the colours of the original Marylin print in photoshop, and apply them to my MRI.  I kept the same background colours, but took the colours of her skin and hair to paint my face, cortex, and cerebellum, and took the colour of her eyes for my spinal cord.  It was great fun playing about and deciding which colours should go on which parts of my head!

With regards to my Marylin image, I hope it shows that the inside of one's head is just as beautiful, if not more so, than the outside face we present to the world. I hope the image inspires people to think about what's inside their head, rather than on the front of it, and how neurodegeneration can devastate the most precious part of you, a part which none of us will ever get to see except in a brain scan. It is essential that we continue our work on neurodegeneration to find out what goes wrong in these diseases, and how we can treat them". 

Charlotte adds:

"Cambridge is a world-leader in the quality and quantity of neurodegenerative research, and I am privileged to be part of the scientific community here and to be supervised by James Rowe (pictured left), the leading expert in MRI of Parkinson's disease.  Public awareness of the value of our work is crucial if we are to continue to secure the financial support necessary to carry out this invaluable research".

To see the other top entry research images reviewed by Scientific American on the 18th July, 2011 please click here.

To find out more about this Brain Art Competition please click here.

Posted on 22/07/2011

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