Beauty & the Brain Revealed

Arts and Brain1
Back in 2010, I and 3,000 of my fellow museum-goers participated in an exhibit/experiment at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (and I wrote about it for this blog). Last week, I learned the results of the research during a tour of the AAAS gallery in Washington, DC, and got the chance to do the experiment again. And so can you.

Gary Vikan, former director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and self-described “neuroscience junkie,” walked us through the exhibit this past Thursday, just before he took part in the panel discussion “The Arts and the Brain” upstairs (see our recap). As a museum programmer, he continually sought ways to make art viewers more active participants in the experience. When he met Ed Connor of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University and learned of his work on shape preference in vision, Vikan saw a way to bring science into the world of art, too.

Connor’s work could be seen as an exploration of the aesthetic theory of “significant form,” which includes the idea that certain aesthetic experiences are the same, independent of time, place, history, or culture. For example, are some aspects of shape universal? Do artists take advantage of our pre-programmed expectations when they design shapes they intend to be pleasing or startling?

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The Arts and the Brain

Arts brain aaasFrom left, Alan Leshner of AAAS, Christopher Tyler, Nina Kraus, and Gary Vikan answer audience questions.

Our brains glow with activity when we view or do art. Now that scientists can scan our brains in the act of observation and creation, what can they tell us about what is going on in there?

Quite a bit, we discovered during an evening of talk, food, music, and interactive art at the AAAS office in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco presented images ranging from cave drawings to Jackson Pollock that illustrated the idea of embodied cognition.“You can’t appreciate the work unless you feel it in your body,” he said.

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Report on Progress: Vision

In the May edition of the Report on Progress, “Artificial Sight: Restoration of Sight through Use of Argus II, a Bioelectronic Retinal Implant,” Mark S. Humayun, M.D., Ph.D., discusses restoring sight to blind patients through a retinal implant:

More than 1 million Americans are legally blind and another 10% cannot detect light. With increased mean lifespan, the frequency of age-related eye disease will double in the next 30 years. A significant percentage of the non-treatable blindness stems from loss of photoreceptors (the rods and cones). Once photoreceptors are lost, restoring useful vision to blind patients has been impossible. However, after nearly a century of research into the use of electrical stimulation to restore sight, the Argus II system (Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. Sylmar, CA) was just approved by the FDA as the first medical implant to restore sight to patients who are blind from near total loss of their photoreceptors.

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How Theatrical Lighting Creates Illusion

We’re in the final month of Brainwave at The Rubin Museum in New York, which this year brings together artists and neuroscientists to explore the idea of illusion in different contexts. Sunday evening’s program, held in partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, will pair Tony Award lighting designer Jules Fisher with Harvard vision expert and Dana Alliance member Margaret Livingstone, Ph.D. They will discuss how Fisher’s techniques create illusions. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Dr. Livingstone has studied how the visual system processes different artistic aspects, including form, color, depth, and movement. To learn more, read our 2006 interview “Visual System Processing and Artistic Genius.”

– Ann L. Whitman

The Circuitry of Vision

Colloquially, the eyes are the window to the soul. Biologically, they may be the key to enhancing scientific understanding of the brain’s neural circuits.

At an event co-sponsored by the German Center for Research and Innovation and the Max Planck Florida Institute, Joshua Sanes, a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiative and professor at Harvard University, and David Fitzpatrick, scientific director and CEO of the Max Planck Florida Institute, explained their research into the circuitry of the retina and the visual cortex.

Their research brings into focus the roles genetics and environment play in shaping neural circuitry.

As Dr. Sanes explained, the retina is complicated but compact, making it “a playground for figuring out how circuits work.” Three layers of cells make up the retina: photoreceptors, which sense light; interneurons, which process information between the layers; and retinal ganglion cells, which respond to movement, orientation, color contrast, and edges. There are at least 50 types of interneurons and retinal ganglion cells, and only a few connect to each other, forming parallel pathways for communicating visual information.

Using a fluorescent protein, Sanes’ lab marked the gene Jam-B, which only appears in a small number of mouse retinal ganglion cells. They found that the dendrites of these cells all had the same orientation, and that the axons all pointed toward the center of the retina. They all respond to motion moving in the direction of their dendrites.

RetinaStained Jam-B RGC dendrites pointing in the same direction, with axons going toward the center of the retina. (Credit: In-Jung Kim and Joshua Sanes, 2008)

“It’s rare that you can determine function from structure,” said Sanes. But these cells—and at least nine other types of retinal ganglion cells now identified by scientists—are genetically hard-wired to respond to particular directions of motion.

In contrast, said Fitzpatrick, experience can shape the responses of cells and circuits in the visual cortex.

Using two-photon in vivo microscopy, an imaging technique that allows researchers to study brain activity in living animals, Fitzpatrick looked at direction-selectivity emergence in individual neurons in the ferret cortex. Ferrets are not born with direction-selective cortical cells—there is a critical window for their development soon after birth.

Fitzpatrick and his colleagues presented visually naïve ferrets with a motion stimulus while recording their neuronal activity. After eight to ten hours of training, direction signals correlating to the direction of the stimulus began to form. “Experience was driving circuit emergence,” said Fitzpatrick.

Some cortical cells do show a weak bias toward one direction over another when shown a bidirectional object; there may be some genetic-experience interaction at play. Still, no one yet knows why experience molds cortical cells, while genetics alone drives retinal cells. But clearly, the imaging techniques now available to neuroscientists—like two-photon microscopy and fluorescent proteins—will help answer these questions while unraveling the brain’s neural circuitry.

–Johanna Goldberg

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