The Beautiful Brain: communicating fundamental neuroscience through masterpieces of art

by Lorenzo Gesuita and Theofanis Karayannis
The Beautiful Brain: communicating fundamental neuroscience through masterpieces of art
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The Beautiful Brain is a documentary web series that breaks down borders between science and art. Five episodes retrace, in a simple but visually effective way, five key steps of brain development, using awe-inspiring masterpieces of art as analogies. A work of art is made to create an honest and inspiring dialogue with the observer. By choosing a masterpiece as a means of communicating a complex scientific fact, we aim to trigger people's curiosity, stimulating their sense of beauty and wonder. People might not be naturally motivated to learn science when it is not needed to address an urgent problem, but they may be naturally fascinated by something that captivates the eye.

This unconventional series focuses on fundamental research in neuroscience, the communication of which is not always easy or straightforward. In this Scientists' Forum article published in FEBS Letters, we share how we tried to overcome the difficulties of communicating fundamental science to the lay audience. Moreover, we give insights into the path we followed to create The Beautiful Brain, with the hope that our experience may be an inspiration to other basic scientists who wish to communicate their own research.

In episode 1, we talk about the initial phases of brain development. During the early stages, an early formed structure called the neural tube is composed of neuroepithelial cells (NECs), which are highly polarised cells that span from the ventricle to the pial surface and can divide symmetrically to generate new NECs. At the onset of neurogenesis, NECs switch their identity and turn into radial glial cells (RGCs), which start dividing asymmetrically, generating another RGC and a differentiated neuron [[6]]. While the mechanisms controlling these processes are multiple and complex, the underlying principle is the existence of a balance between symmetric and asymmetric divisions of neural progenitors. This is the concept we decided to bring to the attention of our audience, stressing the fact that choosing one type of division versus the other allows the harmonious growth of the brain. We then searched for a work of art that could visually resemble the structure of the neuroepithelium, made of repetitive elements that could mimic the stem cells, and with a building plan based on some sort of harmony. Our choice fell on the Doric temple of Segesta, in Sicily (Italy). Like the neuronal progenitors vertically stretching across the entire thickness of the neuroepithelium, the columns vertically span the majority of the temple height, creating an imposing colonnade.

In episode 2, we were helped by a team of Castellers from Granollers, a town close to Barcelona. Castellers are associations of dozens of people that build impressively high human towers during traditional festivals in Catalonia, Spain. The way they climb one over the other resembles the way cells migrate in the developing brain, making these human towers one of the most original analogies of the series.

During early phases of brain development, billions of cells are produced. At later stages, many of those cells undergo programmed cell death in order to guarantee quality control and to maintain a functional balance between the different types of neurons. This is similar to a sculptor chiseling (and sacrificing) marble to create a statue.

The brain is a network of compartments with different functions. The network is created by connections, similar as the streets of a city, or the canals of Venice. The structure of a neuronal cell and the formation of a synapse is demonstrated in the fourth episode through a glass model made by a master glassblower.

In the growing brain, too many synapses could mean an excess of signals and an exaggerated expenditure of energy. This is why a process called synaptic pruning takes place, similar to the way a farmer selects promising buds in a grapevine and prunes the others.

In this Scientist's Forum article, we hope to offer our approach and challenges in creating The Beautiful Brain as inspiration for other researchers seeking to communicate their science to the lay audience in a creative way. Read the full article here.

Gesuita, L. and Karayannis, T. (2023), The Beautiful Brain: communicating fundamental neuroscience through masterpieces of art. FEBS Lett. https://doi.org/10.1002/1873-3468.14604

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