The beautiful neuron

Back in the days when I was doing my bachelor thesis, part of the work included visualizing neurons and neuronal networks with light microscopy. I think I will always remember the first time I saw a neuron we had stained… it was beautiful! So, so beautiful!!! Different shades of brown in the background and a black neuron standing out, with branches stretching from the soma, going in all directions creating such an intricate pattern. I remember thinking “Dendrites.. it truly is a fitting name!” (The scientific name for the branches is ‘dendrites’ – coming from the greek word ‘dendro’ meaning tree). I was in awe! I couldn’t believe this much beauty was hiding in our brains. The two weeks of early morning waking required for staining this neuron were definitely worth it.

I increased the magnification only to discover more details.. there were even thinner branches! But there was more. Along the dendrites I could see small bulges, the spines. It was like an almond tree before blooming. Knowing that these were the points where this neuron would connect with other neurons (invisible to me because we hadn’t stained them) and transmit his information, blew my mind.

I think I spent one hour looking at this neuron, going up and down, left and right, taking in its every micrometer. Later on, I also had to use fluorescence microscopy for my thesis. First time looking at the stained section was another mind-blowing experience. With this method, in the same sample we could visualise different networks of neurons in color! There was not a single neuron identical with another. Each one had its own unique pattern, some more interesting, other more boring, other too complicated to follow.. And with the press of one button magic would happen: the red network would change into a blue or a green one, and with each change a whole new set of neurons would be revealed! I literally felt like a child with a new toy – the most awesome toy ever! The bad thing with fluorescent dyes is that they wear out after being exposed to the light for too long. So I couldn’t enjoy and explore as much as I wanted.

Looking back at these days, from all the work I did, the time I was spending in that dark room with my music and the microscope was by far my favorite. I really think that 1/4 of that time was just for admiring the beauty of the neurons (since I couldn’t simultaneously concentrate on the scientific question :p )! I remember my supervisor saying that you get used to it after a while and it stops being that exciting. I’m happy I never did 🙂 I prefer the feeling of disappointment when the work load was too high and there wasn’t enough time to admire that small work of art, than the desensitization to its beauty any day. Maybe if I was still doing it after 5 years, I would have gotten used to it – I can’t know. I’m just glad I’m left with this feeling of awe. This way I can fully appreciate work like this of Greg Dunn.

Greg Dunn is a visual artist and has a Ph.D in neuroscience. I discovered him a few days ago and instantly fell in love with his work. As you figured by now, all the pictures in this post are his. Actually, deciding which ones to include has been an impossible task. So visit his personal web page Greg A. Dunn Design for more awesomeness!
Quoting from the ‘about’ section in his site:

I enjoy Asian art. I particularly love minimalist scroll and screen painting from the Edo period in Japan. I am also a fan of neuroscience. Therefore, it was a fine day when two of my passions came together upon the realization that the elegant forms of neurons (the cells that comprise your brain) can be painted expressively in the Asian sumi-e style. Neurons may be tiny in scale, but they possess the same beauty seen in traditional forms of the medium (trees, flowers, and animals).

I’m really happy that I’m not the only one appreciating his work. There is an interview with him in the Huffington Post: Neuroscience Art, as well as in The Beautiful Brain (a site I discovered thanks to Greg and is now permanently under my science links section). I agree with how he sees things and I encourage you to read both of them. Here’s a small taste:

‘What do you find beautiful about the brain?

It is literally the most complicated object in the known Universe! The tremendous knot of cells when connected in a certain way gives rise to a strange sense of “I” that is able to ponder and learn things about its environment. It is an utter miracle, and is at the root of why we are conscious beings able to appreciate this world and all of its beauty. How can you not love it?!

You can read the whole interview from Beautiful Brain here.

Discovering Greg made my week! Plus I have found the next present I will buy myself 😀

If you know other neuro-artists – or other artists – you think I might like, please leave a comment to tell me.


11 thoughts on “The beautiful neuron

  1. I feel like I have a unique connection to neuro-artists from undergoing neurosurgery ten years ago. My art now is inspired by neuro-transmitters and dendrites a little differently in that I create a spontaneous image based on something I hear.

    These pieces are beautiful, as is your description of the neuro-transmitter!

    • firefly says:

      Your description on your creative process reminds me of synesthesia 🙂 But exactly how neurotransmitters and dendrites inspire your work, isn’t clear to me.. Minds make weird associations!

      Thanks for your nice words 🙂

      • Synesthesia is a fairly accurate description! I prefer to think of it as transliteration from verbal to visual communication. My mind associated the biology of neurotransmitters firing in response to auditory stimulation and the image that translates into with inspiration for the piece. 🙂

        • firefly says:

          Ahaa! I get it now 🙂
          Just so you know, neurotransmitters don’t fire. Neurons fire and as a consequence they release neurotransmitters.. The scientist in me couldn’t resist the correction.

  2. This is the right blog for anyone who needs to find out about this topic. You understand a lot its almost exhausting to argue with you (not that I truly would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Nice stuff, simply nice!

    • firefly says:

      Hahahaha.. 🙂 Wow! Thank you very much! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post.
      For what it’s worth, I rarely argue, I discuss.. sometimes extensively :p But always with solid proof (or at least that’s what I try to do).
      FYI, your comment was marked as spam (that’s why it didn’t appear immediately), which means you might get the same problem when commenting on other blogs.
      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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  5. Appreciate the work of art, Those neurons look awesome! I’ll definitely take a look at Greg’s work. Thanks for the link.

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