braiNY blog 2014!

Re-posted with permission, this post was originally posted on myscizzle:

Drosophila Diaries: Sweet Sensations
By Michael Burel

Every graduate student has a contingency plan. You know, that thing you’d do if you were suddenly expelled from your program and no longer had semi-stale seminar pizza for sustenance. For me, that plan is to open a bakery. It’s a flawless idea. Everyone loves sweets (read: Everyone. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking they don’t have a sweet tooth. They hide behind the thin ‘salty-food-is-better’ veil. Give them a cookie and see who is smiling now). And, as Ina Garten so famously chortled while sharing a recipe for irresistible chocolate chip cookies: “You can be miserable before you have a cookie and you can be miserable after you eat a cookie, but you can’t be miserable while you are eating a cookie.” Preach it, Ina.

But you know, sometimes a cookie just doesn’t cut it for graduate students. I mean, sure, on the outside we put on our big happy face (you know the one) and say through a forced grin, “Oh. Great. Seminar cookies…again. My favorite.” In reality, however, we do need actual food from time to time to exist on this planet. I’m talking about the kind of food that has vitamins (huh?), minerals (what are those?), fiber (like from a wicker basket?), and whole grains (isn’t that for cows?). In times of nutritional need, our bodies activate an intrinsic dowsing rod to hunt down food with the nutrients we desperately lack. That’s why patients with pica, a disorder characterized by an appetite for unusual things like sand and clay, often have a mineral deficiency: They seek these non-nutritive materials in a last-ditch attempt to restore, for example, a low iron count.

Now let me throw a wrench into the scheme: What if you couldn’t taste anything? How would your body know—in a time, let’s say, before we could scientifically determine the nutritional value of food—if something is good for you to eat? Indeed, animals that have lost the ability to taste still have preference for foods that are more nutritious and easier to digest (1, 2). But how?

In search for an answer, and for the second installment of Drosophila Diaries, scientists hunted for a gene in Drosophila that would abolish a fly’s ability to distinguish what is nutritionally beneficial from what is not. Monica Dus et al. led a study to really understand how animals blind to taste can still select the more nutritionally appropriate food choice, an ability that is potently augmented in times of starvation. At the core of their research was a genetic screen in otherwise normal, healthy flies to find a mutation that would prevent them from choosing a good sugar (the metabolically active D-glucose) from a bad sugar (the unusable L-glucose). They honed down on such a gene and named it—quite cutely—cupcake, which only seems appropriate: Put a cupcake and a bowl of bran flakes in front of a five-year-old and they will 99% of the time choose the cupcake. Nutritionally the best option? No. The more delicious, magical of the two? Absolutely.
The cupcake gene encodes a sodium/solute co-transporter whose mammalian ortholog works to move glucose across the small intestine into blood. Obviously, cupcake must be doing the same thing in flies: Without cupcake, flies can’t take up sugar into their hemolymph (bug blood) and therefore can’t sense the food’s nutritional value. A fly gives up all hope of even picking one sugar over another because, to the mutant, it’s all the same.

If only it were that simple.

You see, cupcake isn’t even expressed in fly guts. The group found that cupcake is expressed only in a very select group of neurons in the fly brain in a structure called the ellipsoid body. The ellipsoid body is part of a larger brain structure called the central complex, which modulates fly behavior and—quite intriguingly—processes the senses. By specifically putting cupcake back in these neurons, the authors rescued the ability of flies to sense which sugar was best for them. How cupcake works in these neurons to sense appropriate glucose still remains a mystery.

As graduate students, we often come face to face with difficult decisions: Should I attend this conference or get data for my upcoming committee meeting? Should I run this Western now or wait until Monday? And perhaps the most important of all: Should I pick the oatmeal raisin cookies or the random deli salad for seminar munchies? (Obviously the former). Too often, we subsist on foods that aren’t the best for us yet are readily available. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we all have a little hypomorphic cupcake in us.

Which works for me, because my bakery business would be booming. Science wins again.


Re-posted with permission from

The Living Museum: Mental Illness Meets Art
Maryam Zaringhalam

Once a cafeteria, Building 75 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center now houses one of the most extraordinary collections of art I have ever seen. Known as The Living Museum, the 40,000-square-foot space is covered from floor to [very lofty] ceiling with the work of over 500 past + present artists-in-residence—all of them patients with mental illness.

Prior to my visit, my only experience with mental illness was through stories I’d heard from friends or via my rampant consumption of popular media. In all honesty, I arrived at Creedmoor’s expansive and remote campus, located in the far reaches of Queens, with more than a hint of discomfort. But on entering that space, surrounded on all sides by unique works of art, all my hesitation fell away. Instead, I became eager to chat with the museum’s artists about their work. Their psychiatric state was immediately irrelevant to me, except in the sense that, for many of them, their symptoms were a prime source of creative inspiration. Indeed, that very shift in perspective—that reidentification from mentally ill to chronically creative—lies at the heart of an arts asylum like The Living Museum.

Building 75 was converted into an arts studio for Creedmoor’s patients in 1983 by psychologist Dr. Janos Marton and artist Bolek Greczynski. By providing patients with the space and resources to create art, Greczynski and Marton encouraged those suffering from mental illness to view their afflictions not as a limitation, but rather as a creative advantage.

The pair was inspired by the work of Austrian psychiatrist Leo Navratil, who founded what became the Gugging House of Artists—a residential house in which artistically talented patients with mental illness came to live and make art together. Navratil’s work seamlessly wove into the rise of Outsider Art, or Art Brut, which grappled with the nature of individual self-expression and the conventions of mainstream art. The Gugging artists thus found fame—and more importantly, acceptance—in this world of Art Brut as interest in and appreciation of the relationship between mental illness and artistic creativity grew.

Following the Gugging model, Marton and Greczynski sought to create an arts asylum of their own at Creedmoor. Rather than viewing the creation of art as a form of therapy in the traditional sense, the pair believed that the patients at Creedmoor could come to reinvent themselves as creatives… who just so happen to be mentally ill. In fact, Marton asserts that his colleague’s greatest strength was that Greczynski never saw the museum’s artists-in-residence as mentally ill, remaining singularly concerned with the quality of their artistic output.

Before his passing in 1994, Greczynski often suggested: “Use your vulnerabilities as a weapon,” which remains the museum’s guiding mantra almost twenty years later. Now under the directorship of Dr. Marton, the museum’s sole employee, The Living Museum remains dedicated to fostering the creative spirit of its 100-or-so current artists-in-residence. On visiting the museum, which is open to the public by appointment, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marton. Below, you can read more about his experiences with The Living Museum and his insights into the interrelatedness of mental health and creativity.

What is the guiding philosophy behind The Living Museum?

We’re not doing anything else but turning people into artists. The therapeutic goal is that you change your identity from a mental patient to a mentally ill artist. Our philosophy here is more a practical, pragmatic one—that it gives you the identity. And if you think of yourself as a mentally ill artist—as a painter, as a video artist, as a poet—that’s a much more comfortable identity than that of a mental patient. And that’s a huge leap in terms of healing.

The foundation for that philosophy is that there are two symptoms of mental illness that most people are not aware of, and these two principles are the foundation for The Living Museum. First, extreme creativity and mental illness overlap; it’s almost a symptom of mental illness. And the second part, which is absolutely unknown to most people—especially to those who work with mentally ill people—is that mentally ill people are nice. So these two aspects are the foundation for an art asylum.

There’s this old question of whether all artists are crazy or touched in some way. What is your take on the relationship between mental illness and creativity, especially given your own experiences with The Living Museum?

I would think that what I was saying about extreme creativity and mental illness works the other way around. I think that all artists have neurodiversity happening in their brains, and if they don’t, I would bet they cheat with drugs and alcohol. Navratil believed his dozen or so artists would be great artists even if they did not have mental illness. I don’t think that’s the case. With the mentally ill, there are a number of pedestrian factors that contribute to this creative artistic output.

One of them is just time. Patients have too much time on their hands, so institutions are always forced to fill their time and keep them occupied. And time is something that you really need for art. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell brought up the 10,000 hours of happy activity to become a genius. I believe in that. You become very good at what you do constantly. So people who come here and create day-in and day-out become incredibly good at their craft. In a way, what we do here is a solution for the mental health field because once you are caught by the bug and the idea that you are an artist, the only thing you want to do is create create create. It’s so satisfying and so essential to your life.

Another factor is that great art—versus decorative or political art—is the art that remains relevant hundreds of years from now. And great art is created in that ahistoric, mythical space where you hear voices and you literally meet Jesus. It’s not created in the here-and-now. Here, mental illness is a great advantage because you truly have that experience of the space where the angels fly. I would put down my money even in this mythical domain, that art is in that privileged sphere where you are hearing the voices and you are handicapped ultimately.

Another aspect that makes creativity important is the issue of trauma, of PTSD. When you are hurt, when you are under attack, when you are an outsider—that motivates people. People with mental illness certainly qualify; they experience a lot of hardship and discrimination and rejection and that requires from them a song. There’s this line in a Jimmy Cliff song: “’Cause the wicked carried us away in captivity required from us a song.” So that type of suppression is a good fuel for art.

The word “asylum” in the context of mental health has become a really touchy word, so it’s really interesting and refreshing that you’ve reclaimed it here as a safe and utopian space. Could you elaborate more on the idea of an art asylum and its place in the mental health field?

Mental health policies are generally integrationist, and the asylum is always considered historically bad because it was based on segregationist ideas. But the old asylums had some good positive qualities. So we try to revitalize that and take the good aspects of the old asylums. The idea here is to provide protection and the recognition that mentally ill people are different. Mental illness isn’t like breaking your leg where you go into rehab and you recover and you run a marathon again. Mental illness is chronic and mentally ill people are traumatized people. Loved ones—not just society—reject the mentally ill and that is a big trauma. So it is great to have utopian spaces where your mental illness is not the issue because everybody has it. You can concentrate on other things instead—like your work.

And there’s also the idea of protection, which does not mean you can’t be out in the world if you can handle it. But once you’re not able to handle it, it’s always good to come back to a safe space that belongs to you. I am convinced that this should be the future for the situation of people with mental illness. The big asylums are downsizing in terms of numbers and most importantly in terms of buildings and real estate. So in my mind, instead of selling off these buildings or giving them away, they should reserve this real estate for Living Museum-style art asylums because it works so well. It’s a very inexpensive of protecting people and providing them with meaning.

How would you distinguish art therapy from what happens here?

I think this is something that is misunderstood a great deal in the art therapy community. In my mind, the biggest difference between what art therapy does and what we do here is a legal difference. The most important aspect of any therapy is confidentiality—that we have a contract that whatever happens here between us remains confidential. So artwork that is produced in the context of therapy shouldn’t really be exhibited. It should remain a part of the process. But at The Living Museum that does not exist. Here, you publish things, you go out in the open, you use your own name. I encourage people to do that. So it’s not a therapeutic contractual agreement.

This is more work rehab and less of a psych therapy program. Just because making art is good for you does not mean it’s therapeutic. So there’s a confusion of terms and a problem with the paradigms. You might be enjoying our conversation right now, but this is not therapy. It might make you feel good and it might make you feel good about what you’re doing, but that’s not dealing with your inner demons.

A common criticism of medication that I hear often is that it has this numbing effect that seems counter-productive for creativity. But the artists at The Living Museum are encouraged to keep up with their medication, so it must not be so black and white. Could you share your thoughts on the relationship between medication and creativity?

While the criticism might have some foundation, my experience over these 30 years is that if you have severe chronic mental illness, medication is the bottom line. You have to take it. So we embrace medication here because it works. My experience has been that each person is really different and each person has to be taken at his or her own case. For some patients, medication takes away their particular form of art. But for many patients, it doesn’t tamper with their creativity. It depends very much on what kind of work you are doing.

One patient, for example, channels Beethoven’s spirit, but when he’s stable, the spirit of Beethoven is not communing with him. Or, there’s a woman and God or Jesus appears to her physically and she is inspired to write a spiritual song. The music that she writes is authentic religious music. But when she’s stable, Jesus doesn’t appear to her, and so she doesn’t have that motivation. Though she can still perform her songs—and perform much better—when she is stable.

Again, mental illness is not a dichotomous thing where you have it or you don’t. It is a continuum. In my opinion, the best definition of mental illness is the inability to tolerate stress. That’s much better than any of these scientific definitions in the DSM. When you are psychotic there is very little you can do; you’re happy to be surviving. So my experience has been that when people are off their medication and they are unstable, they can create very interesting work. But it just might not be worth it.

Major hat tip to Heather McKellar, program coordinator at the NYU Neuroscience Institute, who organized a screening of The Living Museum—a documentary following six of the museum’s artists directed by Academy Award Winning documentarian Jessica Yu—for 2014′s Brain Awareness Week. Enjoy a trailer for the film below.


Re-posted with permission, this post was originally posted on myscizzle:

Voids in our brain at the interface of science and art
Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD.

Believe it or not, one fifth of our brain is occupied by the extracellular space (ECS), a well-connected convoluted layer around brain cells that separates them from each other and supports them in various ways. This layer that seems to encompass all brain cells, has a particular geometry with very specific parameters associated to it, e.g. width~60nm and volume fraction (ECS_vol/Brain_vol)= 20%,  as well as a content, in the form of extracellular matrix [1].

One interesting aspect of ECS is that, in different parts of it, it forms dead-space micro-domains (voids) in conjunctions of brain cells. Voids are well connected to each other through the ECS and significantly reduce diffusion coefficient of molecules. Why do we need to have voids in our brain? What do they do? And what are the factors determining their size, number and distribution throughout the brain? We don’t know!

Some time ago I was visiting Iran and got the chance to visit the time museum in Tehran, where I found the most similar structure I have seen to the brain ECS! What you see in the picture is a structure copied from the sixth floor music room in Aali Qapu (a grand palace in Isfahan/ Iran, made in Safavid period (1501-1736)). What makes this structure similar to the brain is the presence of deep circular niches in the walls that resemble the voids in the brain ECS. The niches have not only aesthetic value, but also acoustic. As they are well connected to each other, they retain the echoes and deliver the sounds of the singing and musical instruments to the rest of the architecture, which in the case of Aali Qapu, is a 6-floor building. So everyone in the building could equally hear the sound of music played in the 6th floor!

I was wondering if the role of our brain-voids could be just similar to these niches: to retain the local events (whatever they are: transport phenomena, signals, patterns,…) and clearly deliver them to the rest of the brain?!

What makes the brain-voids even more interesting is that they are not fixed structures but have dynamics (both in structure and content). This can give them the possibility and flexibility to control and change the local events and deliver a different message to the rest of the brain, depending on what is most favorable to the overall physiological function of the brain.
1.    Nicholson, C., P. Kamali-Zare, and L. Tao, Brain extracellular space as a diffusion barrier. Computing and Visualization in Science, 2011. 14(7): p. 309-325.



To kick start the BraiNY blog, we talked to Heather McKellar and Heather Bowling of the BraiNY initiative. braiNY is the public outreach arm of the Greater NYC Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.

Sloka Iyengar, Ph.D.

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

Heather Bowling – I first became interested in Neuroscience during my senior project, so much so, that when I arrived at Wellesley College the next fall, I immediately declared it as my major. I worked with great people who were passionate about finding a cure for a childhood neurological disease and was also given many unique opportunities to interact with investigators in different disciplines of neuroscience. My experience there led me to apply to graduate school at NYU School of Medicine, where I am currently finishing my PhD.

IMG_0833 (1)

Heather McKellar – I received my PhD from Columbia University in 2011 where I worked with Dr. Joseph Gogos to better understand the genetic, molecular, and cellular roots of schizophrenia. At Columbia Medical Center, I became part of a vibrant science and education community that allowed me to create a diverse network throughout New York City. After my defense, I became part of the administrative team at the new NYU Neuroscience Institute. I am tasked with creating an outreach program to bring our scientists into the community. I have found an eager community of student and post doc volunteers. It has also become a great tool for bringing together our entire community from students to faculty and from basic researchers to clinicians.

In your opinion, what needs to be done to make science more attractive to the non-scientist? 

Heather Bowling – I think we need to make current research more accessible to the public. If everything that is available to the public is old enough to be in a textbook, it’s not that exciting. I think if we can communicate new findings and why the field is excited about them and what they could represent as a piece in the larger puzzle that is neuroscience, the public will be more interested. In addition, I think teaching children about the brain and how scientists form experimental questions at a young age can cultivate a stronger interest in science in younger generations.


Heather McKellar – Kids are naturally inquisitive. I think by teaching kids that science is about asking questions, you make it fun. You also make it a field that is still very active and something they can be a part of. It is much more interesting to look for an answer than to memorize a fact. While adults can be trickier, I have found that just by being open, honest, and respectful, you can get almost anyone to listen to what you have to say. Sometimes just answering a question makes science that much more approachable.

Where do you envision BraiNY/neuroscience outreach in NY to be a couple of years down the line?

Heather Bowling – It would really be great if in two years braiNY had regular outreach events in addition to regular classroom visits around the city.

Heather McKellar – In a couple of years, I see braiNY having a more set structure, a large team of volunteers, and a number of set partners. I think we will also be a platform for events throughout the year and a way for the NYC community to interact with the neuroscientist community. Given the reaction that we have had over the past year, braiNY is poised to become an important part of the conversation between scientists and the NYC community.


For Society of Neuroscience members – see braiNY’s Dr. Heather McKellar on The ABCs of BAW:

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