Throughout this residency I have been looking at neuronal pathways and message transmission through our bodies. Designated synaptic clefts allow these transmissions to pass from one dendrite to the next and this is known as the action potential process – I have posted a number of images and descriptions of this process, according to my understanding of it. However, unsurprisingly, I now find there is more to these complex neurological interactions – also involved are electronic components known as ion channels:
From 1939 to 1952, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley published a series of seminal papers that successfully described how the flux of ions across membranes is responsible for the generation of the action potential: an action potential is the transient, rapid rise and fall of the membrane voltage ( Rasband, M. N. (2010) Ion Channels and Excitable Cells. Nature Education3(9):41)
Returning to some earlier research in more detail I have been investigating neuronal firing.
As has been previously discussed in earlier posts, neuronal firing is the name given to the changes that take to enable neurons to communicate with each other. This neuronal communication occurs via electrical impulses and neurotransmitters.
As you can see from the chart above, the activity of the cultured sensory neurons can be measured in a number of ways relating to the bursts of activity, spike rate and active channels.
Since its initiation in 1979, Ars Electronica, Linz, has developed as an innovative centre for arts and ideas, particularly media art. It has sought to connect these ideas with everyday life through science and research, art and technology. https://ars.electronica.art/about/en/
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Ars Electronica was coming to Wollongong in February 2020 in the form of the 3Festival https://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/5931285/art-and-tech-festival-ground-breaking-for-wollongong/
Whilst this new venture will maintain the essential aims of the Ars parent organisation, it will have new unique characteristics related to Wollongong and the various stakeholders who are supporting this exciting venture.
Importantly, from my point of view, the 3Festival will have an art/science component where I will have the opportunity to showcase the first artistic outcomes of this Synapse residency..
I have come to expect that, during my art/science collaborations, I will find myself out of my depth from time to time in a rarefied and highly specific discipline – thoughts here of Steven Wilson and the dilettante question: https://www.leoalmanac.org/industrial-research-artist-a-proposal-by-stephen-wilson/ – In the Dottori laboratory, as I observe experiments relating to the enormously complex sensory systems within the human body and the way that sensory stimuli are received and travel to and from the brain, I am entering terrain that is far beyond my own expertise.
As a result of this, I recently supplemented my conversations and observations about the creation of neuronal populations and the formation of functional networks by consulting a website aptly entitled: https://neuroscientificallychallenged.com/ On this site I took a look at these processes more generally and diagrammatically. The following is a brief outline of what I have abstracted:
The generic process that allows sensory stimuli to pass around our body is known as Synaptic Transmission. When neurons communicate they usually do so in a designated area known as a synapse. Although very close, the neurons do not actually touch each other, but are separated by the synaptic cleft that allows chemical messages to pass across from one neuron to the receptors of another neuron on the other side.
The neuron sending the chemical signal is known as the presynaptic neuron and the neuron that receives this message is known as the postsynapticneuron.
An Internet search for ‘senses’ reveals that the current biophysical benchmark consists of five senses: touch, smell, hearing, taste and sight. This basic group of five is sometimes extended to include balance, temperature and proprioception. However this traditional biophysical model has been challenged and extended and today there is really no absolute definition!
It is widely accepted that the earliest systematic consideration of the nature of the senses is found in Aristotle’s De Anima, Book II, ch. 7-11. This text might be described as a type of rumination on the constituent factors of the soul of various living entities in combination with an early concept of biology and, in the case of humans, intellect. Descartes subsequently challenged the notion of relying on personal senses to validate human perceptions, whilst successive thinkers have subsequently destabilised Descartes dualistic outlook, preferring to use the term ‘vital force’, rater than soul.
The notion of the ‘vital force’was central to my doctoral thesis research into concepts of ‘humanness’ and experimental links to the nineteenth century developments in galvanics. In particular, the development of electricity led to the invention of machines that could supposedly define the human body and all its component parts.
This week included something outside the Dottori lab when Mirella and I visited the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials (AIIM) at the Innovation Campus: https://www.uow.edu.au/research-and-innovation/our-research/research-institutes-and-facilities/australian-institute-for-innovative-materials/about-us/
This exciting opportunity all began with a chance meeting between myself and the Executive Director: Professor Will Price, which involved a conversation about the possibilities of incorporating 3D components into my future artworks. Will subsequently set up an exploratory visit to the 3D workshop with the Associate Dean of Research (AIIM), Professor Peter Innis.
Equipped with high end machines of various types this facility is arguably the most advanced of its kind in Australia.
During my laboratory orientation at the very beginning of this project Linda Deitch made a point of drawing our attention to the two new Incucyte machines. These high-end machines are capable of real-time live-cell imaging and analysis inside the laboratory incubator. This means there is no need to open the incubator door & remove cells to check on their development. Once the Incucyte has been programmed, the images of the changing cultures are transmitted directly to the computer for analysis.
These images reveal the sensory neurons developing in the ‘plate’, they are not imaged as 3D organoids in this instance.
The Dottori laboratory not only cultures sensory neurons but also cortical neurons, that provide models for Alzheimers and Dementia research. The images below show 4 crucial stages in the process when culturing stem cells to generate cortical neurons:
The beginning of this process involves the isolation of pluripotent stem cells and their cultivation in the laboratory incubator.
My distant memories of school biology lessons were revived when Mirella drew an impromptu diagram of basics of neuronal functioning in our body. This impromptu sketch helped her to explain to me that neurons communicate via chemical and electrical synapses, in a process known as synaptic transmission. They are thus categorised as electrically excitable cells housed in the human nervous system, whose function it is to process and transmit information.
As my laboratory observations and my discussions with Mirella continue my thoughts begin to turn to how I might recontextualise this complex scientific data to create interactive artworks in the future….??
The neuronal responses remind me of my doctoral research project when I became interested in the so called ‘vital force’ possessed by the human body which could be regarded as an internal machine-like power known as ‘animal electricity’. I was particularly interested in the historical development of experiments that sought to identify and even locate this vital force.
This early research depended on the introduction of what were then cutting edge machines in the area of galvanics. Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798) was an Italian physician, physicist, biologist and philosopher, who is credited with being the first to discover ‘animal electricity’ when he passed an electric current through frog’s legs, causing them to twitch. Initially known as ‘galvanism’, this is a forerunner of the contemporary scientific technique of electrophysiology .
Subsequently, Carlo Matteucci (1811-1868) expanded on this research creating a ‘rheoscopic frog’, leading to the discovery, in approximately 1865, of a nerve’s action potentials by Julius Bernstein and Emil du Bois-Reymond. Currently, bio-electricity continues to be central to neurological experiments and is measured by techniques such as calcium imaging and electrophysiology.