Tuesday, May 25, 2010


One of the Writers' Festival sessions with Lone Frank, which I attended, was shared with Dr Perminder Sachdev, author of the book The Yipping Tiger. This is an Oliver Sacks-style memoir about some of the unusual cases he has seen in his clinic (he is currently based at the University of New South Wales). When I was discussing the session with another Festival attendee, she asked me why neuroscience seems to concentrate so much on the abnormal brain. I told her that I believe it is because it has always been so difficult to see a brain when it is working normally. It's only the absences, after a stroke, tumour or major trauma, that reveal to us what parts of the brain are used for which functions. The recent development of fMRI is changing that, though, and enabling neuroscientists to study activity in healthy brains as well as damaged ones.

Dr Sachdev writes:
"We now have tools to image the living and working brain with high precision. Since the 1970s we have arguably learnt more about the human brain than in all the preceding centuries. There are more neuroscientists currently alive than have existed in all of history."
This reminded me of something Dr Adam Hamlin pointed out in his Tuesday Talk at Culture at Work; that almost everything we have learned about the brain we have learned in the past thirty years.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Lone Frank claims that neuroscience is the "Fifth Revolution" (I'm a bit unclear on what the other four are, but I'm pretty sure the Copernican Revolution and the Industrial Revolution are among them). In her book, Mindfield, she quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett:
"The next generation of geniuses will appear in brain research. Once it was particle physics that attracted the brightest young people, then it was DNA and genome research, but now it is the neurosciences. Because this is where you can answer the big questions."
In the sessions I attended at the recent Sydney Writers' Festival where Lone shared her experience of researching and writing her book, she challenged the audience to consider themselves, in Francis Crick's words, as "a bag of neurons". She predicts that, with increased understanding of the chemical processes in the brain and of how drugs, magnetism and other treatments can control them, there will soon come a day when we think no more of having treatment to boost our brain function than we currently do of cosmetically altering our appearance or self-medicating to change our mood with alcohol.

A number of people in the audience were disturbed by this prediction. The idea of using artificial means to improve brain function seems a little too much like the creation of a superhuman species. Certainly there are some ethical dilemmas that need to be considered: for example, if we develop a drug that can improve memory, should it only be available for those with cognitive impairment, or for everyone who wants to learn more and better? The question also arises about who should be allowed to judge what is normal; and if such a mind-altering drug were to be put onto the market, will economics and pricing mean that the human race is divided into subclasses: the "smart" rich and the "dumb" poor?

Lone, having had experience of clinical depression and salvation from it using anti-depressants, also raised the question of whether happiness is, or should be, a basic human right. Aristotle said that happiness is the ultimate reason for living, and if we can achieve a happier state using drugs that alter our brain chemistry to change our mood, shouldn't we all be taking them all of the time?

These questions, of course, presently operate on almost a purely philosophical level and the issues of side-effects and long-term success of the drugs (most of which are hypothetical at this stage) were not even canvassed during the sessions. It is important, though, for those of us thinking about brain function, that these issues should be flagged now and debate initiated. If we wait until the technology is already in use, when the patents are already in the hands of the big pharmaceutical companies, it will almost be too late to lodge ethical objections. Let's have some discussion on this subject, here on this blog. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

fMRI and fiction

The ABC Radio Book Show talked to an English professor with the lovely appellation Dr Zunshine, who is using fMRI to study how the brain reacts when we read fiction. She talks about our ability to process different levels of mental states: that is, when we know something, it's easy to process, as in "I am tired." Two levels are okay, too: "She knows that I am tired." Three levels: "I want her to think that I am wide awake." Four levels: "He wants me to understand that she thinks that I am awake even though I am actually tired." After this, it gets trickier.

Virginia Woolf, apparently, was the master of this technique, including up to seven levels of mental states in her fiction. No wonder her little thin novels take as long to read as the latest 500-page blockbuster! According to Dr Zunshine, reading fiction is all about brain training, practising the skill of coping with multiple mental states.

I'm not just reading, I'm growing some new neuronal connections.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Putting on the God helmet

Danish neurobiologist Lone Frank is visiting for Sydney Writers' Festival, and the local broadsheet newspaper ran an article about her book, Mindfield, this past weekend. After donning the "God helmet" which magnetically stimulates the brain to produce a quasi-religious experience, Frank 'makes the case in her book that the world is "on the threshold of a neuroscience revolution".'

Everything we learn about how the brain operates adds to our understanding of what goes on between our ears. Stay tuned for my reports on Frank's Writers' Festival sessions, Brain Wave and Mindfield, that I'll be attending this coming Friday and Sunday.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Deep brain stimulation

I've been listening to this month's Neuropod podcast, recorded at the recent American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Toronto, Canada. Presenter Kerri Smith interviews Dr Andres M Lozano, who uses deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease. This involves implanting an electrode in a damaged area of the brain to encourage it to reactivate, and works on the tremors and movement disorders of Parkinson's. He is now looking at using DBS for mood regulation, such as in cases of depression.

Towards the end of the interview, he talks about possible uses of DBS to treat early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease:
"The next frontier might be to see whether one can regulate memory or cognitive function in the brain; and as we get to have a better understanding of what are the circuits that control memory and cognitive function, we may be in a position to intervene within those circuits, and improve their function as well. On the basis of that thinking, we've started a pilot trial of DBS in treating patients with early Alzheimer's disease. The idea here is to place electrodes within the memory circuits and see whether one can activate the circuits and turn them back on."
He also suggests that this somewhat Frankensteinian technique could be used to spark neurogenesis.

Another story on this edition of Neuropod is about using fMRI imaging to map neural pathways in human brains. This produces amazing images of brains in vibrant coloured fibres: visit The Human Connectome Project to see some.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I finished these works only recently, but they are the last of the finished works so I'm repeating them here. I apologise if you're seeing them for the second time. The triptych of embroideries is based on a series of images by Dr Adam Hamlin, showing areas of the basal forebrain with healthy cells, dying cells and where wholesale cell death has occurred.

Using hand-dyed silk pearl cotton on black silk shantung, I've represented the images in an abstract way. The healthy cells are stitched in French knots, straight stitches and running stitches that are connected and orderly: this is a brain that's in good working order. In the middle work, the stitches are all present but they are disconnected and chaotic: the brain and thought structure is breaking down as the cells lose their integrity and die off. In the final work, there are only a few stitches in a void of destruction; however, I have made these connected and orderly as a sign that all hope is not lost – neurogenesis may still save the day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Axonal connections

The colourful work Axonal connections was very popular with viewers at the Tuesday Talk. Based on an MRI image by Randal Moldrich at Queensland Brain Institute, it is a visual representation in French knots of the lobes created by the computer, mapping activity in a mouse's brain. This embroidery is worked on black silk shantung in stranded embroidery cotton, using French knots and padded satin stitch. I used varying numbers of strands of thread and wraps around the needle to create French knots to represent the different-sized lobes in the original image, where larger lobes mean stronger connections.

Making the French knots is a repetitive process – the work took about 40 hours to complete, even though it is only about 12cm x 6cm – and allowed lots of time for meditation. And, of course, listening to the Skeptic Zone podcast, this week featuring an interview with Adam and me.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Neurogenesis after ischemia

An image by PhD student Lavinia Codd inspired this double-layered work, Neurogenesis after ischemia. This work uses fluorescent rayon threads in interlocking lines of knotted loop stitch on black silk shantung. These stitches represent neurogenesis, which is increased in the week after a stroke (ischemia). The layer of "angry astrocytes", as Dr Adam Hamlin describes them, are represented by magenta seed beads stitched onto sheer black organza using invisible thread.

This work is quite abstract. It expresses feelings of loss and absence caused by a stroke, as well as hope for regeneration and the future. It's dedicated to my dad, who suffered a minor stroke that affected his ability to recall and use certain words in his vocabulary.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus

People have been asking to see the finished artworks, so I will post an image of each one over the next few days. Please note that they are not yet framed properly: the broken line in grey running stitch around the outside indicates the edge of the work. I am still pondering options for framing, although many people who saw the works at the Tuesday Talk showing said they liked the way they were displayed in the embroidery hoops.

This work, called Neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus, is based on Dr Adam Hamlin's microscope image, below. The embroidery is stylised and representational, attempting to capture an abstract understanding of the process of neurogenesis rather than making a visual copy of the original image. In this way, the work takes its inspiration from traditional embroidery stitches such as blackwork and hardanger, which started out as copies of natural forms but are now very geometric and stylised pattern-making stitches.

The work is hand-dyed silk thread on shantung silk, and uses chain stitch, French knots, seed stitch, straight stitch, long-legged fly stitch and running stitch. The long-legged fly stitches that represent the newborn brain cells reach their arms out towards the neurons in the rest of the brain, striving to make new connections and survive.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Neuron at Circular Quay

Yesterday Adam and I went down to the Museum of Contemporary Art to check out the giant neuron on the lawn. Roxy Paine's steel astrocyte is pretty impressive!

As we arrived, a group of Biennale guides were getting their instructions about what to say to curious onlookers: Yes, you can touch it. No, you can't climb on it. When they learned that Adam was a neuroscientist, he was happy to give the group an impromptu mini-lecture about brain cells and brain function.

Despite the threat of an imminent shower of rain, we snapped some great pictures!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Thank you

The first Culture at Work Tuesday Talk last night was a great success! Adam's talk about his research at the Queensland Brain Institute kept the audience spellbound.

On the other hand, I was so nervous that I'm sure everyone could see the laser pointer quivering as my hands shook.

Thank you to everyone who came along, or who couldn't make it but sent their best wishes, and to those who have supported our project so far. After the talks and slide show, we enjoyed drinks and a viewing of the embroidery works in the studio and gallery space.

Big thanks to Sherryl, Lauren and Amy for their hard work in making the night happen and go along smoothly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Today is the day!

Please come along and join us if you can.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Science is like a tapestry with no edge...

The Bad Astronomer talks textiles:
Science is like a tapestry with no edge, and with holes located here and there in the fabric. We can fill those holes ever more, and explore the edges, pushing them back with each new discovery. Along with many other observatories like it, SDO is our loom that helps us create and follow that weave.
The "loom" he is referring to is the Solar Dynamics Observatory that took the gorgeous image of the sun I referred to last week.

Back to basics

One of the things I wanted to do when I began this project was to experiment with dyeing the embroidery threads myself. Hand-dyeing can result in a lovely, organic variation of shades. The two threads pictured here are hand-dyed using Procion bright green dye, which is easy to use because it works in lukewarm water – no messing around with stoves or microwaves required.

Here's the beginning of an artwork using the hand-dyed threads. This one uses feather stitch to create sprays of neurons all over the background, which will eventually be thickly covered with stitching.

This artwork is based on the image that started this whole project off: it's an image of the brain of a rat addicted to cocaine, that Dr Adam Hamlin showed me when we first met four or five years ago (his work then was on drug and alcohol addiction rather than Alzheimer's disease).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Knots on the brain

Another artwork is finished! I am feeling very productive this week as the date of the Tuesday Talk draws nearer. As I've mentioned, I've chosen to display the works in the wooden embroidery hoops, as I don't have time to have the properly framed before next week.

I hope to have the works framed with matboards cut to fit the circle roughly outlined by the tacking stitches around the outside. I will need to decide whether to frame them in square or round frames (I suspect my framer will prefer the former!) and what sort of frame to use, but that's a decision for another day.

The round shape of the works was inspired by the memories I had of Petri dishes in my high school science lab. Below is a photograph of one of the sets of small, round dishes in which Dr Adam Hamlin keeps his sliced, frozen mouse brains at the Queensland Brain Institute.