Dr. Lillian Park from the Psychology Department and SUNY Neuroscience Research Institute, recently organized a free guided tour for SUNY Old Westbury students to experience the traveling exhibit “The Beautiful Brain Exhibit: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” and learn more about the relationship between art and neuroscience. The exhibit, which was on display at the Grey Art Gallery in New York City, toured the United States before the original works returned to the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain.
The first hand opportunity to see Cajal’s work was a privilege for Dr. Park and her students. Dr. Park explains, “For years I used reproductions of Cajal’s drawings to teach not only the structure of the neuron, but also about the history of the field. The exhibit was a wonderful chance to see up close the work that was the decisive evidence for the neuron doctrine, a central tenet of modern neuroscience.” Students were provided with the opportunity to see an up close view of Cajal’s original drawings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as, his progressive movement in using art to depict and resolve human brain health, as well as, pathology with simple tools. The tradition of using models to teach students is still alive with 3-D printing to reconstruct images of brain structures and pathways.
The history of how scientists learned how to study the brain by visualizing the basic cells in the brain helped pave the way of revolutionizing the understanding and treatment of the many facets of the human condition. Cajal (Spain, 1852-1934) refined Camille Golgi’s silver staining technique. He then began to use a microscope to look at, and then draw by hand with ink and pen each microscopic detail of every neuron, their shape (i.e., morphology), and how they connected with other neighboring cells. His meticulous observations challenged the then dominant view of the reticular theory that the nervous system was a single continuous network. Cajal’s efforts brought forth a new perspective of science that challenged convention, whereby he discovered that not all neurons were physically connected, but rather had spaces between them known as a synapse.
His drawings served as the first evidence in the scientific community of this phenomenon known as the “Neuron Doctrine” and he is considered to be the “Father of Modern Neuroscience.” His work challenged the field to understand how the structures of the brain he drew and classified were to function in a living organism, as well as, how such analyses of the brain could be used for studying post mortem brain tissues to better understand what caused people to expire.