In the late 1800s, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish brain scientist, spent long hours in the attic drawing elaborate cells. His careful solitary work helped reveal individual brain cells that together create wider networks. By those ideas, Cajal received a Nobel prize of physiology or medicine in 1906.
Now, a group of embroiderers have threaded these iconic cellular images, paying homage to the pioneering designs that helped us see the brain clearly.
The Cajal Embroidery project was launched in March 2020 by scientists at the University of Edinburgh. More than a hundred volunteers – scientists, artists and embroiderers – have sewn panels that will eventually be sewn into a tapestry, a project described in the December Lancet Neurology magazine.
Catherine Abbott, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, came up with the idea while talking to her partner Jane Haley, who was planning an exhibition of Cajal's drawings. These meticulous drawings recreated nerve cells, or neurons, and other types of brain cells, including support cells called astrocytes. "I said, out of the cuff, & # 39; Wouldn't it be lovely to embroider some of them? & # 39;"
The project had just begun when the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world. But sewing at home between locks was a calming activity, says Katie Askew, a neuroimmunologist at the University of Edinburgh. “It has something that can occupy your hands so you’re not scrolling through the phone watching the news is great,” he says. Askew chose to recreate a type of neuron known as the Purkinje cell from a human cerebellum, a structure in the back and lower part of the brain that helps coordinate movement. Purkinje cells collect signals with lush thickets of tendrils before sending along their own calming signals. Cajal’s particular specimen almost filled Askew’s fabric panel. “They’re amazing cells,” she says. Spending months looking at a single cell led her to see similar branches in the trees, she says.
Cajal Embroidery Project; top row (left to right): Liz Ribchester, Katie Askew, Janet Philp; middle row: Carol Coleman, Jane Haley, Emma Perkins; bottom row: Niki Stypidou, Melanie Stefan, Alison Todd
Cajal’s artistic eye is obvious in his drawings, says Annie Campbell, one of the volunteers who contributed a square. “Her images live in this liminal space between science and the fine arts,” says Campbell, who is herself an artist at Auburn University in Alabama. "I was making aesthetic decisions about what to put aside so someone could look at that and say, 'Oh, that's a neuron without all its dendrites so you can see the astrocyte wrapped around it.'
Campbell decided to embroider an astrocyte with tendrils “for the beauty of form,” she says. While sewing, he also began to learn more about cells, which perform a variety of crucial tasks in the brain, including healing wounds.
Cajal’s drawings are still relevant today, Abbott says. "What strikes me most is that they are completely timeless." Even with powerful, high-resolution microscopes, scientists today see cells in a similar way. “It’s almost depressing to think that even with all this sleek equipment, we’re not that far ahead,” he says. “But I like that. I like this direct connection to 100 years ago. "
That thread connects the embroiderers today with Cajal’s work, says Abbott. "We're looking at the same thing and we feel the same sense of wonder."