SciBar 2: Psychedelics and MRI

Last Tuesday we were back at The Book Club, taking over Science London’s Scibar series, showing off our artist-neuroscientist collaborations to a packed room.

This time Scibar started off on a slightly different note from the last. Rather than delving into the biomolecular brain, physicist Lebina introduced us to the highly computational world of brain imaging and its inner workings, a side of neuroscience seldom seen.

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Using a MRI technique called diffusion MRI Lebina investigates the size of nerve fibres in the corpus callosum – an ordered bundle of nerve cells which connect the two hemispheres of the brain. By tracking the movement of water molecules in this is region and some fancy mathematical modeling Lebina is able to predict the width of the fibres. She carefully highlights the motivation and importance of advancing the current MRI techniques in the context of diseases such multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis where the width of nerve fibres could indicate the progression of disease.

So… how would you represent this niche, mathematical research in a visual, tangible way?

Lebina’s nerve fibres struck a cord with India – artist, weaver, illustrator, hug-machine maker and everything in between, who has just returned from learning traditional weaving techniques on a remote Swedish island. Being a materials enthusiast, she set out looking for the right material to weave the nerve fibres of the corpus callosum across her loom.

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After some thorough, considered research (artists, scientists not so dissimilar, eh?) she finally stopped at the somewhat magical crin (from ‘Crinoline’), a synthetic fibre, woven into tubular form that expands and contracts and is just plain brilliant.

Weaving a woven fibre: sooooo meta.

After traversing London hunting for vast quantities (300m) of crin, at times to the displeasure of many textile shops, India has created a giant crin corpus callosum. And after playing around with her samples of crin we can’t wait to get our hands on her interactive stretchy construction at the exhibition.

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Following a quick beer/toilet/gin/cigarette break, we were back with Robin and Georgina for their talk on how they went about making a documentary about giving people acid and watching their brains on a MRI scanner, the ‘why’ was obvious enough.

Robin took us through his research into LSD, the first ever neuroimaging study of its kind, a beguiling mix of science, psychology and philosophy of the mind. Starting off the motivation behind it, he showed LSD can be an untapped and underappreciated resource to explore otherwise ‘unstudiable’ aspects of the brain, its connections, consciousness, ego and the ethereal oceanic boundlessness.

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A somewhat unexpected revelation comes as Robin describes the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics for mental illness, in cases such as depression and anxiety.

The main focus, and audience interest, however remains on what we can find out about our minds through experiences such as ego dissolution and the difficult-to-define oceanic boundlessness, where sense of self, autonomy and volition and ego boundaries disintegrate.

Georgina explains how she has used different filmic styles to bring us, the viewers, through the whole trial, from the view of the participants and scientists. Combining the grainy footage of the deeply personal interviews with the participants as they experience the drug, with stylistic portraits of them, and scenes of Robin in the MRI scanner control room imaging their brains we go through a complete experience of being the researcher, participant and detached observer.

The touching and often hilarious clips leave us waiting anxiously for Georgina’s final cut.

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After an extended Q&A covering everything from the physiological connections in the brain to spiritual experiences to cinematography, the evening drew to a close, leaving our artists and scientists field questions from an intrigued audience on their own.

We would like to say a massive thank you to everyone who came, the speakers, Science London and The Book Club. Thanks for great night.

See you at the exhibition!

Diliana Pecheva

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