Andrew – The brain is made up of billions of neurons — its fundamental building blocks — each carrying out specific roles that allow us to function properly. My aim is to understand how neurons communicate with each other to allow them to generate the complex behaviours that make our lives possible. Problems with this communication underlie the vast majority of neurodegenerative, neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, autism, and schizophrenia.
Unfortunately, how the brain communicates is incredibly complicated, and so in order to understand these problems, we need to find ways to decode it first. One way is to investigate the individual neurons the brain is made up of, and to use this information to build up a picture of how the brain works as a whole. I look at the properties of neurons using very high-powered microscopes, which allows me to see, in high detail, their structure, and also to understand how they communicate with each other.
What’s fascinating is that differences in the structure of the neurons seem to determine how they communicate with each other. Therefore, by looking at changes in structure, you can gather a lot of information about how diseases—and even experiences—affect how the brain communicates. Using the type of high magnification pictures of neurons in the brain that I see every day, Duncan and I have been looking at how structure and function are connected in the brain, but also throughout nature. We’ve come to appreciate that this relationship between structure and function is an amazing feature inherent in all living things.
Duncan – Over billions of years, evolution has resulted in the human brain, an object that has fascinated scientists for centuries. That is where Andrew’s expertise as a neuroscientist comes in. What I’m interested in is why things have evolved this way, and to explore that I’m returning to the simplicity of those structures in nature, and investigating the resemblances between them. I’m fascinated by these similarities, especially because some seem to be designed to do more complex and sophisticated things than others.
Take – for example – a neuron, and compare it with the roots of a bramble or a grape stem. Although Andrew’s visuals of neurons are microscopic in size, they have a similar structure, shape, and design to the stem I’ve represented in my work. There are similarities too in the language we use to describe these different structures: throughout nature we refer to such patterns as branches, channels, conduits, mouths, necks, knots. So, scientists must have recognised likenesses and named features accordingly.
My position as an artist is very simple, in that it focuses on these beautiful visual effects. Maybe nature’s aesthetics – the things we’ve come to think of as attractive features, like a bluebottle’s gleam or the intricacy of a snowflake – have evolved that way to carry out a function. Over the course of this collaboration, I’ve explored how this might be the case in the brain. This is where our work comes together: how structure and aesthetic relate to function.