“One day, while looking at a brain slice through my microscope, I observed something unexpected – I saw beauty in the brain.
As a scientist, I studied Purkinje cells, a type of neuron that resides in the back of the brain in an area called the cerebellum. While observing these neurons, I realized that they bear a striking structural similarity to trees. In fact, this “Purkinje Pattern,” larger branches subdividing into smaller branches, is present all throughout nature on both microscopic and macroscopic scales.
You can find examples of the Purkinje Pattern not only in tree branches, but also in roots, coral, antlers, lightning, capillary networks, river tributaries, phone tree networks, veins in a leaf, social media networks, and even your own consciousness as you make decisions. Below you’ll see real images from my lab work. Each neuron is 200 microns (0.2 millimeters) tall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
…Dana Simmons holds a Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of Chicago, where she researched Autism Spectrum Disorder and its connection to the cerebellum. In the cerebellum, Dana focused on a neural circuit that centers around Purkinje cells. Dana’s research goal was to investigate how this neural circuitry develops and functions differently in autistic vs. non-autistic brains.
While performing experiments in the lab, Dana became inspired by the highly branched structure of Purkinje cells. Dana was intrigued to find that these neurons look like microscopic trees. By filling single neurons with fluorescent dyes and using a microscope to capture highly magnified images, Dana creates digital art that represents the tiny trees of the brain.
Dana now works as a Medical Writer in Chicago, where she is thrilled to be part of a vibrant, dedicated team and collaborate on innovative and creative projects.
Dana volunteers as Co-Editor-in-Chief of Science Unsealed, the Illinois Science Council’s blog. The blog features weekly interviews and articles by science communicators and is positioned to instill curiosity for science and inspire curious minds.
Dana’s main source of inspiration for her neuron art is the structure of the cerebellum. The cerebellum is one of the most organized regions of the brain. Purkinje cells line up with great precision, leading to beautiful structural patterns not seen anywhere else in the nervous system. In the cerebellum, Purkinje cells combine input from the rest of the brain to help us balance, maintain our posture, and learn new movements. They resemble tiny trees in their shape. Interestingly, we can see this tree-like shape all throughout nature – both large and small. Dana uses the term “Purkinje Pattern” to describe these structures, which can also be observed in trees, lightning, antlers, coral, decision-making networks, Lichtenberg figures, bacterial colonies, blood vessel networks, and veins in leaves.
Dana’s goal with her neuron art is to explore patterns in nature and to speculate about why certain patterns form over and over again. She aims to create striking visual images of Purkinje cells so that people will see them and ask, “What is that? What does it do? Why does it matter?” Her goal is to use science-art to promote curiosity about science and the natural world.
Another source of inspiration for her neuron art is Andy Warhol’s pop art. Warhol famously showed the beauty of everyday objects such as shoes and soup cans by displaying them in multiples and varying the color scheme. For Dana, neurons in brain slices are everyday objects. She alters the colors of each image to create several versions, and when she shows her art, she line up multiple versions of the same image to create an effect similar to that see in Warhol’s art.” (Dana Simmons, Ph.D.)
NOTE: All the images in this post are taken from various web sources, and are property of the author Dana Simmons Ph.D.!
Visit Dana Simmons’ web page, observe all of her neuroscience artworks and if you want, you can also buy some of them at: