DOOR Co-Creates Immersive "Life of a Neuron" Exhibit

May 17, 2023

Neuroscientists get really excited about neurons–their beauty, their complexity, and their secret inner workings. But step outside of that small, tight knit community and you immediately realize that this beautiful cell that powers our thoughts and makes us human is almost completely unknown. The immersive exhibit “Life of a Neuron” invites visitors to get to know this beautiful cell by walking through an innovative, 3D model of a real human prefrontal cortex neuron, and watch it change from birth through death. Created by ARTECHOUSE Studio in partnership with Society for Neuroscience (SfN), the exhibit is the result of years of research, and a groundbreaking collaboration between digital art and science which includes the work of Dani Dumitriu [hyperlink to page about me], MD, PhD, Principal Investigator of the DOOR lab.

The origin of “Life of a Neuron” began years ago when Dani conducted her dissertation research under John Morrison, PhD, and Graduate School Dean at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She studied how the density and size of dendritic spines change as a function of factors like aging, stress, and addiction, and she developed new methods to image these structures with high fidelity and resolution. Her friendship with John endured beyond Dani’s thesis defense, and they still often discuss big ideas to this day. One of those big ideas was to celebrate SfN’s 50th anniversary with a large installation of a human neuron. 

When John was named the SfN’s scientific director for the project, he reached out to Dani to join the team. “I had to get a high resolution 3D image of a human neuron for the artists who would take it from there,” she recalls.  “John was obsessed that it had to be the real thing and not an animal neuron. Not even a monkey neuron would do. So we had to develop methods to get high quality, live tissue from humans which is very difficult to do.” 

Accessing her childhood dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, Dani seized an opportunity to scrub into a neurosurgery where the patient was having a piece of their brain removed due to severe intractable epilepsy. Once the surgeon handed her the tissue, she placed it in a specially-developed fixative, and immediately took the tissue back to her lab. There, she spent many hours searching for a portion of the tissue which had normal (nonpathologic) neurons and was preserved adequately by the fixative, which, unlike in animal models, did not perfuse the tissue for rapid, high quality fixation. 

After several days, Dani’s micropipette, filled with the fluorescent dye Alexa 568, finally impaled the perfect neuron. “This is the one!” she exclaimed to excited lab members, awestruck by the opportunity to witness a PI performing experiments. The neuron was imaged at Zuckerman’s Cellular Imaging core facility on the (then brand new) Nikon confocal system equipped with a Yokogawa CSU-W1 spinning disk. “We were one of the first groups to use this awesome microscope shortly after my arrival to Columbia,” she says. Hundreds of megabytes of raw imaging data were given to the artists who took it from there.  “We, including postdoc Kristin Anderson [hyperlink], also worked with the artists to help them understand the basics of neurons and develop the story of the life of a neuron.”

The exhibit debuted in Washington, DC, in 2021, then moved to Chelsea Market in New York City in 2022. The 20-minute audiovisual experience features the single neuron Dani captured, rendered in various ways to tell its life story from birth through development, adult life, aging and finally death. A side exhibit includes a short documentary describing how she obtained the neuron. 

“I’m really proud of that work,” she says. “It’s a way to give back and connect with the public that funds our research through taxpayer dollars. It was so cool to take something I’m really excited about and see artists transform it into something other people get excited and educated about.”