Art meets science in mouse's brain

22 December 2010

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Category: Communications & media

art–science–mouse–brain.jpgAnimals have been used to understand the inner workings of the brain since the very beginnings of neuroscience. Famously, Leonardo da Vinci injected the brain of a freshly killed ox with melted wax to reveal its complex inner workings.

Each new imaging technique has provided great leaps in our understanding of this mysterious organ, and also created some gorgeous images.

Carl Schoonover presents neurological discoveries though a series of startling brain images in his new glossy art book, Portraits of the Mind. Perhaps most illuminating are the photomicrograph images of 'brainbow' mice.

The detailed architecture of mice brains has been revealed using genetic tricks and fluorescent proteins to individually label hundreds of nerve cells with 90 different colour combinations. This creates a fantastically complex 3D map of connections, a multicoloured 'wiring diagram' enables the impenetrable tangle of neurons and their connections to be deciphered.

The creation of 'brainbow' mice was only made possible after the discovery of the fluorescent jellyfish gene, which produces the green protein that causes jellyfish to glow. Splicing this gene into mice in the 1990s, researchers were able to make neurons glow green.

However, a wiring diagram made of only one colour is of little use so in 2007 researchers tweaked the jellyfish gene to produce red, yellow and blue fluorescent genes. Using a genetic recombination system that randomly shuffles these colours, they were able to make each neuron glow one of 90 different fluorescent hues. The neurological web could at last be untangled.

Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century by Carl Schoonover is published by Abrams.