Brain photos help understand learning difficulties

Picture: Ian rutherford

Picture: Ian rutherford

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THE colours are vivid and dazzling, pretty pictures of intriguing shapes that keep the brain guessing.

Indeed trying to figure out what these beautiful images portray could well be a real brain-teaser – a challenge to put the little grey cells to the test.

It might not be obvious at first glance, but these bold and striking images, full of brilliant shades and curious lines, in fact capture the beauty and complexity of the human brain in all its amazing glory.

The eye-catching pictures – which could easily hang on the walls of a modern art gallery – have been made possible thanks to the advanced technologies used by the world-leading researchers at Edinburgh University, which help them portray brains and their cells in action.

To the expert eye, they are vital components in the struggle to unravel the mysteries of neurological disorders like autism and fragile X syndrome – the most common cause of inherited intellectual disability.

For those affected, the hope is that images like these could eventually hold the key to unlocking life-changing conditions which have baffled the medical world for centuries, bringing hope for generations to come.

To many of us, however, they are simply stunning ­impressions of what goes on inside our heads.

The 38 images of the brain, specially enhanced with dazzling colours which help scientists identify just what is going on, have now gone on show in a public outdoor gallery in St Andrew Square. It means we can all appreciate the beauty of images normally only seen by a privileged few university researchers as they gaze through the eyepiece of powerful and expensive microscopes, or sift through complex scans.

The aim is to promote understanding, according to Sophie Dow, founder of learning difficulties charity Mindroom, which she set up after struggling for years to have her daughter Annie’s learning difficulties fully diagnosed and explained.

She hopes that the images will help us all learn how the brain is altered in people with learning difficulties and other neurological conditions.

Sophie helped bring the images out of the laboratory and research centres into the heart of the city after being invited to look through a scientist’s microscope and being struck by their sheer beauty.

She says: “I saw this abstract art there. I said straight away that they couldn’t sit on these fantastic images, that they had to be brought into the daylight.

“These images are simply too beautiful to be hidden away in a lab. They were created to further our understanding of the brain but they can also be viewed as stunning examples of abstract art.

“Our hope is that people admiring the pictures on show will also come away with a greater awareness of what it means to be affected by learning difficulties and other brain conditions.”

Among the images in the exhibition – entitled ‘The Brain is Wider than the Sky’ - is a fascinating sequence of MRI brain scan images from an individual with fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of autism which can lead to various difficulties with learning, emotional and social development and behavioural problems.

While that clearly shows familiar images of a brain, it sits alongside another image which at first glimpse could be mistaken for a Van Gogh influenced painting of a tree’s branches silhouetted against a starry night sky. In fact, it shows the complex electrical connections between brain cells.

One which appears to be intriguing squiggly lines on a black background illustrates the differences in brain signals from a typical brain compared to that of a person affected by a condition similar to fragile X.

And one of the most striking examples is an image of two swirling rivers of green, blue, yellow and orange which reveal the differences between a typical brain and that of someone with autism.

Researchers from the University’s Patrick Wild Centre for Research into Autism, Fragile X Syndrome and Intellectual Disabilities collaborated with Mindroom on the exhibition.

The most striking element is the colours which, explains Dr Sally Till, Walter Muir Autistica research fellow at the centre, are added in the laboratory to help scientists identify different kinds of brain activity and cells.

She says: “If you looked at a cell it would be beige, you wouldn’t see these colours. The colours are used as a way of expressing the data and to give us information.

“The human brain has more cells than there are stars in the Milky Way and these cells communicate through a thousand times as many connections. Our goal is to understand how even small changes in these connections can have such detrimental effects on learning and memory.”

Professor Peter Kind, director of the centre, which forges links between different strains of research into brain function at the university, adds: “Each of these images tells a story about vital brain research that is taking place right here in Edinburgh. We are delighted to offer people a rare glimpse into our work in such a prestigious location at the heart of our city.”

The exhibition, which runs until July 4, has already generated interest among passers-by, says Sophie, who launched Mindroom in 2001 in a bid to help other parents of youngsters with learning difficulties navigate the maze of medical terms and to raise awareness of the issues.

She says: “One woman whose daughter has mental health problems left feeling uplifted because through this she could see that people are working on trying to understand what happens in the brain. Another man said his wife had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and even though that condition doesn’t feature in the images, he was inspired by what he saw.

“What we want to do is highlight the amazing work that the scientists are doing at Edinburgh University which could help so many people and so many families.”

• The Brain is Wider than the Sky runs until July 4 at St Andrew Square, www.mindroom.org