Project Diary: The Artist in the Neuroscience Lab

The day that ceramicist Amanda Doidge and philosophy researcher Benjamin Dalton stepped foot in the laboratory of the Maurice Wohl Neuroscience Institute

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Many conversations were had when Amanda and I spent the afternoon with Dr Sandrine’s team of neuroplasticity researchers at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute. Questions ranged from the scientific to the personal, from the artistic to the political. We looked down microscopes, studied images of neurogenesis, observed stem cell cultures, and talked ceramics.

Questions included:

How do scientists measure plasticity?

What does the concept of “form” mean to science?

Why does life have to take “form”? Is life possible without “form”?

Does (neuro)plasticity only ever describe healthy, helpful processes of evolution and development, or can “bad”, pathological processes also be described as “plastic”?

Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity Benjamin Dalton
Ceramicist Amanda Doidge is shown around the lab at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute by neuroplasticity researchers Demelza Streeth, Curie Kim, Andrea Du Perez and Chiara De Lucia
Amanda Doidge Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton
Amanda looking at stem cells through a microscope. Amanda was interested in what forms were produced by the stem cells, and we had many conversations with the scientists about what “form” means from a scientific perspective. In terms of the brain, synaptic “form” is plastic because synapses can rewire and create different networks: so what is the different between the network and the form? Can a network also be a form?
Narrating Plasticity, Amanda Doidge, Benjamin Dalton
Neurogenesis in action: what forms are produced by neuronetworks? Amanda was also fascinated but the colours used by the scientists to differentiate between different types of cells at different stages in their life cycles…
Amanda Doidge, Benjamin Dalton, Narrating Plasticity
Amanda and I talked a lot to the neuroscientists about the lifecycles of a cell, and how different cells come together in the brain to make forms. One question that kept coming up was: if the scientists are measuring neuroplasticity in terms of the rate of neurogenesis – how many new neurons are being produced at anyone time – how does this fit in with the bigger thinking of plasticity? How does a researcher go from the zoomed-in picture of neurogenesis to thinking about the overall plasticity of the brain on a much larger scale?
IMG_6990
What is neural form? Neuroscientists talk about plasticity in terms of neurogenesis, and the changing of connections and networks in the brain. How can we think of forms and networks at the same time?
Narrating Plasticity, Benjamin Dalton, Amanda Doidge
The scientists always seemed taken back by how beautiful we found the images of the nascent neurons. Amanda was particularly interested by how the dying cells were colour-coded differently from the living cells, asking exactly what the difference was between these two types of cell and how the dying cells contributed to ongoing “healthy” processes of neuroplasticity. We learned that apoptosis is the process by which cells die in a health and “planned” manner, to make way for new cells or to sculpt forms, “pruning” away unwanted material the way a gardener might prune a bush. Necrosis, on the other hand, is when cells die chaotically and in an unplanned manner, which can cause a lot of problems. It is a very fine balance between the two processes. 
Benjamin Dalton, Amanda Doidge, and the neuroplasticity team Narrating Plasticity
Squadgoals. (From let to right) Amanda Doidge, Curie Kim, Chiara De Lucia, Andrea Du Preez, Demelza Streeth and Benjamin Dalton

Author: Benjamin Dalton

PhD Candidate in French at King's College London. My thesis explores the centrality of the concept and conceptions of plasticity in contemporary French thought and culture.

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