Dunn and Edwards’s Neurological Microetchings

The brain is essential to our lives, and yet so mysterious. How many people can begin to visualize the inside of the brain, let alone understand how it works? Greg Dunn (artist and neuroscientist) and Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) created stunning micro-etchings of the inner-workings of the human brain. They call this “perhaps the most fundamental self-portrait ever created,” and is aptly named “Self Reflected.” As you view the images, your brain is perceiving its own interior. Their etchings are plated with 1,750 plates of 22k gold, creating a dazzling visual experience in the light.

The moving light in the display of these etchings represents carefully calculated paths of electric signal transfer. As you watch the light flow through the etching, you are watching information move through microscopic brain cells. This is at the core of human brain function.

The midbrain, an area that carries out diverse functions in reward, eye movement, hearing, attention, and movement.

Creating these etchings was no small feat. Its creation took nearly two years of research, engineering, and construction. Dunn and Edwards aimed to make their pieces as accurate as possible, based on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of the brain.

First, they hand-painted around 100 different examples of neural cell types, or “grey matter.”

Hand painted neurons are scanned into the computer and are turned into vector images, mathematical descriptions of the neuron’s outline.

Next, they used hand drawing and computer software to draw axons, which are long structures that connect neural cells. These axons are fundamental communication pathways within the brain, also known as “white matter.”

Hand drawn axons mathematically adapted for use in the final piece.

Using mathematical simulations and neurological data, they connected the axons and neurons together. This yielded 25 individual images that make up a template for the etching.

Cerebellum and brainstem

The process is called “microetching” because it is microscopic; they printed the templates onto extremely high-resolution transparencies, which were placed over the top of photoresist, a material that is sensitive to ultraviolet light. They flashed ultraviolet light over the pieces, burning in the designs into the photoresist. The result is a three-dimensional microscopic etching of the design.

A scanning electron micro-graph of the surface of a microetching after photolithography at 120X (left) and 1200X (right).

Finally, they applied extremely thin plates of gold to the etchings and compiled the 25 etchings together. They engineered and installed a complex network of LED lights for the exhibition.

Assistants Ajay Leister (left) and Becca Van Sciver (right) apply individual squares of gold leaf to the surfaces of the microetched plates.

The results are absolutely dazzling. The gold on the surface of the etching reflects any color of LED light shone onto the surface.

The entire Self Reflected microetching under white light
The entire Self Reflected microetching under violet and white light

The results of their work are not only amazing to look at, but they show a complex story of the inner-functions of the brain. This is a stunning visual showing the complexity and beauty of the human mind.

The visual cortex, the region located at the back of the brain that processes visual information.
The brainstem and cerebellum, regions that control basic body and motor functions
The parietal gyrus where movement and vision are integrated
The motor and parietal cortex, regions involved in movement and sensation, respectively.

For more information on Greg Dunn, Brian Edwards, or the “Self Reflected” piece, cruise around on their website, which goes into much greater detail about the science and engineering behind the piece. There are also many more photos and videos. Also check out Greg Dunn’s Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter. You can also buy prints of the piece here. Self Reflected exhibition information is here.

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