Art, Technology, and Neurons : Short Wave A new exhibit in Washington, DC, mixes science and technology for an immersive art experience — taking visitors not to a distant land, but into their brains. This installation is a partnership between the Society for Neuroscience and technology-based art space, ARTECHOUSE. Producer Thomas Lu talks to neuroscientist John Morrison and chief creative officer Sandro Kereselidze about the "Life of a Neuron."

You can follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasUyLu. Email us at ShortWave@NPR.org.

Experiencing The Emergence, Life And Death of A Neuron

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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THOMAS LU, HOST:

A few weeks ago, my editor and I ventured down three stories below ground into the basement of an unassuming building in Washington, D.C. We're heading to a new exhibit housed at the technology-based art space, ARTECHOUSE.

JOSH FELDMAN: So what we're looking at here is our main space gallery.

LU: That's ARTECHOUSE DC sales manager Josh Feldman. He's our guide for this visit.

FELDMAN: As we step foot through the installation, you are stepping foot into our brain.

LU: Quite literally, we are walking into a projection of the human brain. The main gallery space is illuminated by high-definition laser projectors from the floor to the wall. And as we roam the room, our bodies become an extension of the floor, another surface for the projections to shine on. The focus of this exhibit is the brain - more specifically, the nerve cells in our brains.

JOHN MORRISON: We wanted to tell the story of a neuron, a single neuron, in order to educate the public regarding the fact that the neuron is the essential element of the brain.

LU: That's John Morrison, professor of neurology at the University of California, Davis, and the lead neuroscientists for this new exhibit. He tells me that everything we do is the result of about 86 billion neurons talking to one another, from our senses - touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing - to how we interpret and understand our world.

MORRISON: The neuron, it's a cell that's specialized for communication. All the circuits within the brain that process information are formed by neurons.

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LU: Today on the show, the life of a neuron, plus how the melding of research with art and technology pushes the boundaries of how we learn about the world and understand ourselves. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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LU: The idea for this exhibit started a couple of years ago when neuroscientist John Morrison had a concept in mind.

MORRISON: We decided to construct a three-dimensional neuron that you could experience, that you could walk through. But we didn't have a way to do it. We just knew we wanted to do it.

LU: He knew it was a stretch, an immersive way to visualize the neuron. But then he and his colleagues at the Society for Neuroscience met some of the artists from ARTECHOUSE. This meeting eventually led to a multi-year collaboration.

MORRISON: And everybody had to listen to me at the beginning of each call say, look; I think we've got about a 50% chance of this working. And then, by the end of the call, I'd say, OK, we're down to 20% because it was just so - it just seemed so difficult all the way through.

LU: The challenge here was figuring out how to provide enough data and scientific images for the artists to accurately work from. But in the end, it paid off.

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LU: Can you walk us through what happens in the first nine months of human development from the science perspective?

MORRISON: (Laughter) Do you have a couple hours?

LU: I mean, if you have a couple of hours, I have a couple of hours.

MORRISON: No. No. I'm just kidding. What - the main thing that happens is that you start with very few cells.

LU: Yeah.

MORRISON: They can replicate at that point. In other words, just like a cell in your skin, they can replicate. You can get more and more cells.

LU: Right.

MORRISON: But they're not neurons yet. And then they start to differentiate into neurons. Now, at the same time, those neurons are starting to specialize in terms of where they are in the brain. So now in those first nine months, you're already developing areas that will respond to vision, that will produce movement, that will end up being what we refer to as the thinking regions of the brain. That's already starting in those first nine months.

LU: Right.

MORRISON: And you go from, literally, relatively few neurons or a few cells to billions of neurons. And they're already neurons. They're already specialized. They're already forming circuits, not the adult circuits. You're going to do a tremendous amount of sculpting of those circuits and modification of those neurons after birth.

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LU: At this early stage in the neurons' development in the exhibit, the walls, floors and your body are covered in spheres of white dots, swarming and stretching and growing as they swim towards the center wall. You start to see a larger sphere take shape. And just as quickly as it forms, you start to see sparks of color flying by just for a moment. And once again, you are surrounded.

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SANDRO KERESELIDZE: Visualizing all this, that was the biggest challenge - right? - to really - how can we tell how this story unfolds? And that's why we kind of called it the "Life Of A Neuron" because it's a universal story of us. And, you know, we're learning, you know, every second. And that shows visually as well, too, that beauty of the color and the structure of the neurons itself.

LU: This is Sandro Kereselidze, the founder and chief creative officer of ARTECHOUSE. In addition to the visuals, he says sound is also key to the immersive experience, which, by the way, what you've been hearing and will hear for the rest of the episode is a soundtrack, the audio from the exhibit.

KERESELIDZE: With this installation, we really tried to push the sound effects and sound landscape, in the sense that - to tell that story throughout that whole 20-minutes duration, where it begins with the baby crying or playing in the playground and, you know, continues to the high school. And these sounds are really universal.

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LU: That's interesting that you mention the universality of the sound because the sound is very prominent in the exhibit. But at the same time, it feels universal yet very familiar - right? - because it's...

KERESELIDZE: Correct.

LU: ...Sounds of babies crying. It's sounds of laughter.

KERESELIDZE: Correct.

LU: It's sounds of people singing happy birthday.

KERESELIDZE: Correct.

LU: What informed kind of the pairing of those sounds with the visuals?

KERESELIDZE: Well, to me - and if - I'll go all the way to the back to where my roots are coming from and, you know...

LU: Yeah.

KERESELIDZE: ...Growing up in a family of artists, and especially my dad. He made 65 movies. And he described to me many times that the most important part of the film is the music and the soundtrack. And it was fascinating learning how the sound tremendously effects our experience and our brain. And hearing that - and it was very much inspiration to...

LU: Yeah.

KERESELIDZE: ...Take it to the next level.

LU: Right. Right. So I guess, John, when I experienced it, I saw the dots morphing into the neurons and then the colors getting more vibrant from pastels. And then I interpreted something kind of like a jungle, maybe roots of some sort, and also, maybe, perhaps, electricity traveling from neuron to neuron. But at the same time, that's my interpretation of it. How do you see it as a neuroscientist? Like, what does that say about our developing brain?

MORRISON: Well, I think your perceptions are - were exactly what we were trying to evoke. And I think that it's accurate that that infant brain is super active. And what I thought they did extraordinarily well was they, through the sound and the visualization - they had spines coming and going. And they had the dendrites reaching out. And they had, as you said...

LU: Right.

MORRISON: ...Circuitry on top of the structure. But what they really evoked for me and, I think, for any neurobiologist that saw the exhibit is that extraordinary level of activity and plasticity at that age. And when they move to an older age, everything is more stable, except for adolescence. They really had fun with adolescence...

KERESELIDZE: (Laughter) Yes.

MORRISON: ...In exactly the way that it should evoke the transition from the super plastic brain to the stable brain. Now, of course, plasticity continues throughout your life. It isn't that it goes away. It's just that it's a little bit decreased.

LU: Right.

MORRISON: But the adolescent brain, to me, evoked a lot of - oh, my gosh - I guess confusion. There was so much activity. And the colors were moving so fast. And the electrical circuits that they superimposed on the neurons were so...

LU: There was a sense of movement.

MORRISON: Yes. There's so much movement inside the neuron - mitochondria flying around, proteins flying around, the structure even changing. And they managed to evoke that.

LU: Right. Right. Sandro, how did you evoke that from the sketches and the 3D models that John sent to you?

KERESELIDZE: I think it's, you know, really working with the incredible artists and talents, you know, to really give them right information, right tools. And I think that's what's beautiful with this exhibit, that artists, you know, respectfully use this information to create this beautiful story, right?

LU: Right.

MORRISON: And we didn't only provide this three-dimensional neuron. We also were constantly providing Neurobiology 101. And the artists involved actually learned a lot of neuroscience. When I met the artists, I was really struck by that. One of the artists that worked on the project is now thinking of getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

LU: Oh, wow. And that was also something that struck me is that the exhibit itself is about - what? - 20 minutes? The first half to, maybe, the first 75% of it, it felt very artistic. It felt very abstract. And it felt very impressionistic, right? The colors are changing. It's growing. But then when we reached the death part, you start hearing things like crying and ambulance and even literally slowing down of the visual elements. You're also visually seeing the - what I'm interpreting as the neuron dying. John, was that accurately portrayed in the representative parts of the projection?

MORRISON: Oh, my God. So the first time I saw it, I didn't know what I was going to see. I was - I had no idea.

LU: Right.

MORRISON: I'm watching it. And then I'm looking at the...

LU: Right.

MORRISON: ...At the wall. And I see the neuron start to break up and die, and the dendrites falling off. And then, it's kind of retracting. And that's exactly what I see in the microscope, because we study...

LU: Wow.

MORRISON: ...Aging and Alzheimer's disease. And I think what they did, either purposely or by accident, is when they moved...

LU: Right.

MORRISON: ...From those earlier life stages to adult and then death, they got very literal. They were much closer to what you would actually see in a microscope. Oh, my god. That's a neuron dying.

LU: Wow.

KERESELIDZE: Yeah.

LU: I mean, my editor, who's also listening in, she was telling me that seeing those moments, she was also getting a bit emotional.

KERESELIDZE: Yeah.

LU: And I think that just speaks to the artistic side of incorporating the science. Sandro, what was your experience first exhibiting this?

KERESELIDZE: You know, like, to be honest with you, I think it's something definitely - it's experience that we're all going through, right? I think what we were aiming with this universal story is to really tell the beauty of the things that's happening inside of us and who we are. And I think it's something that makes you pause for a moment and, you know, think about your life and think about, you know, how life is just a moment. It's just a really short moment that we all are living through and going through, the same things inside of us. It's absolutely the same things happening in every one of us.

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LU: John and Sandro hope that people leave this exhibit with a better understanding of the brain and themselves. And at its core, this exhibit combines decades of research from neuroscience and the advancement of both artistic and scientific technologies. As the tools we use to teach and visualize our understanding of ourselves change, they are excited for what's to come. The "Life Of A Neuron" exhibition is in Washington, D.C., through January 2 to 2022.

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LU: This episode was reported and produced by me, Thomas Lu, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Margaret Cirino. The audio engineer for this episode was Gilly Moon. Special thanks to science correspondent Jon Hamilton and the publicist working with ARTECHOUSE, Chekovin Norwood (ph). Thanks so much for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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