Cerebrum Article

Brain Trees

Published: October 15, 2021
Author: Bill Glovin

“Vima” — Purkinje cells are among the most highly branched neurons in the brain, making them resemble trees. Artist Dana Simmons colloquially refers to Purkinje cells as “the microscopic trees inside the brain.” She reflects this in Vima, where she used her micrographs of Purkinje cells to build a burgeoning forest.

We have billions of neurons floating around in our noggins but—like snowflakes—no two look exactly alike. Dana Simmons, a neuroscientist who studied how autism affects the brain, created the following works of art from the beauty she saw through her use of microscopy.

Purkinje cells are a type of neuron that resides in an area called the cerebellum, a region in the back of the brain that controls movement, posture, and balance. “In this microscopic world, I saw something strikingly familiar—a cell with dozens of branches that made it look like the trees outside my window,” says Simmons. “I found that this branching pattern, which I call the ‘Purkinje Pattern,’ is present all throughout nature on both microscopic and macroscopic scales.”

Simmons, who received her Ph.D. in neurobiology in 2018 from the University of Chicago and created her work as a researcher there, points out that Purkinje cells are unusual neurons because they have many more branches (called dendrites) than typical neurons. These branches collect information from many different inputs.

“The way I got all of the colors is through patching the cell, which means attaching a small glass tube to the cell body,” she explains. “Think of it like sticking a straw into a tennis ball and then flowing fluorescent dye through the straw. It diffuses through the branches in about 45 minutes. The dyes indicate the cell’s activity, and they tell us how one neuron communicates with the surrounding neurons.”

Some of her other artwork focuses on the tiny knob-like spines that dot dendrites like leaves on a tree, which are the molecular sites of learning and memory. “We wanted to see how communication between neurons, taking place at these spines, differed in autism,” says Simmons, adding that, in her artwork, she was influenced by her mother
(an art teacher) and her grandfather (an art director and painter). Two of her other major influences are Andy Warhol, known for using everyday figures to create Pop art, and Santiago Ramón y Cajal, an early 20th century Spanish scientist who created drawings of cellular neuroanatomy.

“My goal is to inspire curiosity and promote enthusiasm for science,” says Simmons, who is today a health science communicator and recently moved to Washington, D.C. “I’m really excited about the possibilities for analytical people to think more creatively, and for more creative people to start thinking more analytically. We can all learn a lot from each other.”

“Purkinje 4x2” — Purkinje 4x2 shows four Purkinje cells, twice each: one set where Dana left the microscope’s backlight on, which revealed the texture of the brain slice in which her Purkinje cells were embedded, and one set with the backlight removed, which is how her confocal microscope typically operates to capture data from these cells.
“Manza” — Manza exhibits the characteristic “Y” shape of Purkinje cell dendrites. While individual Purkinje cells do have slightly different shapes, they almost all include a primary dendrite that bifurcates in two secondary branches, which then split even more to generate a broad and extensive dendritic arbor.
Molino” — Molino showcases a wheel composed of Purkinje cells. These cells reside in the cerebellum and play a critical role in balance, coordination, and learning new movements. After completing her experiments each day, Dana experimented with the settings on her confocal microscope to manipulate the colors and textures of her micrographs. This piece includes one neuron replicated several times in different colors.
“Purkinje Cells 24 Times” — Purkinje Cells 24 Times. One of Dana’s primary artistic inspirations is the pop art of Andy Warhol. Warhol took known faces and everyday objects and presented them in a new light. To Dana, a Purkinje cell has become an everyday research object. Emulating Warhol’s style, such as in this piece, Dana added color to make her neurons pop and showed them in multiples in effort to attract curiosity from onlookers.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of our Cerebrum magazine. Click the cover for the full e-magazine.