Stitching the Secrets of the Brain

Stitching the Secrets of the Brain

CALLI MCMURRAY

Only a scientist would call the brain beautiful. For all its complexity, brain tissue looks like a wrinkly lump of grey mush. It’s hard to imagine how a such a bland organ can be responsible for things like memory, emotion, and consciousness. But when graduate student Lauren Hewitt looks at the brain, she sees beauty as well as an infinite amount of inspiration. Hewitt, both a scientist and an artist, creates embroidered artworks that convey the intricate beauty of the brain to scientists and non-scientists alike.

Lauren Hewitt at home, working on her latest stitching project. Photo by Sarah Davis.

Lauren Hewitt at home, working on her latest stitching project. Photo by Sarah Davis.

Hewitt is a third year neuroscience PhD candidate studying Fragile X syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. Her research examines how electrical signals from one neuron affect the appearance of Fragile X syndrome overall. “Our lab focuses on a brain area called the hippocampus, which is integral for learning and memory," explains Hewitt. "This brain area has two types of cells. Excitatory cells shuttle information throughout the brain, [which] is controlled by inhibitory cells." Inhibitory cells make it less likely that an electrical message sent from excitatory neurons will be passed on to other neurons.

 Hewitt focuses on inhibitory interneurons, a type of neuron that forms connections with other neurons, rather than with a muscle, sensory organ, or the spinal cord. “They are the referees of the brain- they control activity flow from area to area.” Understanding how inhibitory interneurons behave in both healthy animals and those with Fragile X syndrome can offer insights into how to treat the disease. But Hewitt isn’t just a scientist: she's also an artist.

 Hewitt started creating science art during a stressful season in her PhD career: preparation for her qualifying exam. This exam determines if a PhD candidate may progress in their studies. Her stress from constant studying needed an outlet. “I needed something to do with my hands at night to help me sleep. I was always on a screen reading papers and writing, so I steered away from my phone.” Instead, she turned to embroidery. After ordering a cheap kit and finding a pattern, she started working on a gift for her lab mate. “I made this ridiculous grandma hoop with flowers that said ‘Bless This Rig’. It’s hanging in the lab right now.”

Hewitt’s first piece. A rig is a piece of equipment that is used to record electrical activity from live neurons.

Hewitt’s first piece. A rig is a piece of equipment that is used to record electrical activity from live neurons.

Hewitt loved the satisfaction she felt from finishing the piece. “I felt an immense sense of productivity and accomplishment, so I continued stitching after my exam. As a doctorate student, you are constantly dealing with failure. It challenges you to be resilient, but you don’t see much productivity. It’s important to have something on the side that’s fulfilling.”

 Her next projects were stitched neurons based on drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a nineteenth-century neuroscientist famous for his anatomical drawings of the brain. Like Hewitt, Ramón y Cajal was also a scientist with an artist’s mind. His drawings are precise and scientifically accurate, but they also capture the beauty and elegance of the brain.

A collection of Hewitt's pieces, based off Ramón y Cajal drawings (top right, bottom center) and her own research. Photo by Sarah Davis

A collection of Hewitt's pieces, based off Ramón y Cajal drawings (top right, bottom center) and her own research. Photo by Sarah Davis

 

Hewitt used some of his drawings as templates, and posted the finished products on her Instagram account. Her posts earned her hundreds of followers, who adored her Ramón y Cajal recreations, much to Hewitt’s surprise. “I had never seen myself as an artist. After I accepted that people saw me as one, I wanted to develop my own style.”

 This desire prompted her to stitch the cells she was researching in the lab, using neuron reconstructions as templates. Reconstructions are hand-traced, 3D computer models of real neurons that showcase what a cell looks like when it's connected to its neighbors in a living brain.

 Normally you would need a high-powered microscope to see what a real neuron looks like, or you could make do with a simplified textbook drawing, but Hewitt’s detailed art makes the real thing accessible to everyone. “I want to show people what neurons actually look like,” said Hewitt. “Real neurons are so beautiful and diverse in their shapes and people don’t see that side of the brain.” Through Hewitt’s pieces, you can see with your own eyes the uniqueness and beauty of neurons, without any advanced technology or prior neuroscience knowledge.

 Now her private hobby has grown into a powerful medium for sharing the beauty she sees in the brain. Hewitt plans to continue stitching a variety of neurons and to use her art as a “platform to teach people about different brain cells”. She has started to incorporate other media into her work, like watercolors, to symbolize different neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals that cause specific behaviors. The combination of her research career and creative mind allows for an endless array of possibilities. Ultimately, her artwork will help people understand the beauty of the brain, and how its inner workings lead to our behavior.

For more interesting articles and videos on science in daily life and science communication, be sure to check out McMurray’s blog here!

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