A recent art competition reminds us that the human brain isn’t just to be studied, it can also be appreciated for its beauty.

The distinction between art and science must come as peculiar to many neuroscientists, whose research regularly brings them face to face with some downright incredible imagery. Firing neurons, glomeruli, hippocampal activity – all these things are as fascinating to look at as they are wondrously complex.

It’s a shame, then, that so many stunning representations of the human brain, heart and other organs don’t ever leave the pages of textbooks and academic journals, remaining largely unappreciated by anyone who doesn’t work in a lab or have a PhD under their belt.

The Art of Neuroscience Competition hopes to remedy this. Held annually by the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience, the contest encourages scientists to embrace the aesthetic side of their research, and gives the rest of us a glimpse into the dazzling worlds they explore.

Here are our highlights from this year:

For of All Sad Words of Tongue and Pen, the Saddest are These,
“It Might Have Been”

This year’s winner was a joint venture between artist Lynn Lu and neuroscientist Carmine Pariante. Lu was inspired by Pariante’s research into stress and its effect on the brain, specifically findings which suggest blood inflammation caused by stress inhibits the formation of new cells, thus increasing the likelihood of depression.

This was incorporated into a weekend-long participatory performance at the Science Gallery London. Attendees were asked to share a regret from their past, which was transcribed onto a sheet of vellum. They then traded a pin prick of blood for a swig of anti-inflammatory beet juice. The detoxifying properties of the beet juice, coupled with the symbolic release of past regrets, would cleanse individuals of personal anguish while illustrating the interplay between blood inflammation and mental states.

“Over the two days,” writes Lu, “the petri dishes filled with blood “inflamed” with lament while vials of detoxifying beetroot emptied one by one. Nearby speakers murmured layered verses of ‘what might have been’, while the wall behind us gradually filled with anonymous regrets collected from participants.”

Fabric of Thoughts

Source: Carles Bosch and Francesca Piñol

To gain insight into how the brain registers odours, Carles Bosch and Francesca Piñol took a close look at the neuronal landscapes of parts of the brain. They used an automated serial block-face scanning electron microscope (SBEM) to hone in on specific locations, namely the olfactory nerve layer and the glomerulus. The vivid images they captured were then transferred into a loom and woven into fabrics like this one.

Human Astrocytoma Cells

Source: Alwin Kamermans

It’s hard to comprehend that something as deadly as cancer could produce such mesmerising and alien-like imagery. Alwin Kamermans, a molecular biologist and cancer researcher, gives us this image of astrocytoma cells, which were derived from a malignant glioblastomas tumour. They were cultured, stained, and then captured using a confocal microscope.

Complex Rhythm Sustaining Complex Life

Source: Yishul Wei

Sleep researcher, Yishul Wei, took multiple electrocardiogram (ECG) readings of a sleeping adult and superimposed them on top of one another to create the colourful and surreal pattern you see above. Hardly consistent in its rhythm, the heartbeat is always responsive to our physical and mental states. As Wei reminds us, even when we’re asleep it’s subject to variability.

Spin Glass

In collaboration with Kate Jeffery, a professor of behavioural neuroscience, and Jeremy Keenan, a technician, Jenny Walsh created an installation which replicates the activity of a head-direction network. This is the collection of brain cells which gives us our sense of direction. Each time our head turns, new head direction cells are fired, integrating the new direction into our mind’s map of our surroundings.

The installation was created using glass, copper and mirrors, and was controlled by the head movements of a mouse. Depending on which direction the mouse’s head was facing, parts of the network would light up. Musical notes, organised on a circular scale, would also follow the mouse, generating the eerie soundscape heard in the video above.


Source: Shimpei Ishiyama and Micah Gettys

By far one of the most conceptual entries into this year’s competition, Shimpei Ishiyama and Micah Gettys took the neuronal activity of a laughing rat and set it to music. The video shows the flashing of neurons as the rat is tickled by researchers, while the spectrum below represents its laughter. Because the sound it emits is too high pitched for human ears to hear, it was reduced to a lower pitch. This was then incorporated into the musical score.