The Brainstorm exhibition at GV Art in London is a very exciting venture: a visually stimulating, thought-provoking and educational display of sculptures, paintings, artwork and scientific material focusing on the normally taboo topic of the brain. But it has come under attack from those who believe it is wrong for human tissue to be displayed in public. The Conservative MP David Amess, for example, has been quoted referring to the exhibition as "degrading", adding that "this is a disrespectful way to treat the human body and is unacceptable."
I disagree and would encourage him and anyone else who believes it to be degrading and disrespectful to visit the exhibition, where they will discover that this simply is not the case.
Would we have had such a reactionary response to an art exhibition about the kidney and kidney disease? What is it about the brain that generates such an exaggerated reaction? Is it because the brain is the organ we use to think?
Some of the art work in the exhibition was generated when a group of artists observed a routine neuropathological examination of a brain, which the Tissue Bank at Imperial College London uses to confirm clinical diagnoses.
Brain slices from previous neuropathological examinations are used in the human section of the display at GV Art. They are there not only to educate the public about what a brain looks like and how it can be affected by disease, but also to contextualise where some of the art work originated. Art has a significant role to play in science as a tool for communicating to the public what the scientist sees in the laboratory, in a form that can be understood by everyone.
But this exhibition does not just push boundaries. It is also important because it raises public awareness of brain disorders like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease that affect a significant number of people worldwide, and highlights the importance of brain donation for research.
For many of these conditions, there are currently no effective therapies or cures. Because animals are not affected by such diseases we are wholly reliant on brain donation pledges from patients to provide brain tissue for study, so that we can find out their causes. Without such donations there will be no way to develop effective therapies or cures.
Importantly, researchers rely on tissue donations not only from patients affected by these diseases but also from healthy donors. The latter are often in shorter supply but are necessary for comparison studies. To secure such tissue donations along with the finances to carry out the research, we need to raise public awareness and have an open debate about how best to tackle these complex diseases.
Realising that this would be a remarkable and new way to help people understand why brain donation is so important, the exhibition was given the full support of the charity that funds the Tissue Bank at Imperial College.
Nobody stands to gain financially, and the brain tissue exhibited meets the strict guidelines that govern the display of biological materials. In addition, the tissue was not altered or enhanced in any way, so the public is viewing exactly what the scientist has observed in the laboratory. Furthermore, displaying it in this exhibition will not have affected its usefulness for researchers when it is returned to the Tissue Bank.
Great lengths were taken to exhibit the tissue tastefully so as to respect the dignity of the donors. Visitors who have seen the exhibition have praised the gallery for the way it has handled such a sensitive topic and report that the experience was thought-provoking and educational.
You don't go about demystifying the brain by locking it away in a laboratory, but by appropriately involving it in widely accessible media like art. This exhibition is a bold step in the right direction.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
The Guardian. He is a reader in neuropharmacology and scientific director of the Joint Multiple Sclerosis Society and Parkinson's UK Tissue Bank at Imperial College London. Pictured is Headache by Helen Pynor, one of the works on display at the GV Art gallery's Brainstorm exhibition.
Posted by BA Haller at 8:46 PM