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Connectome: A pathway to all ideas; Lost connections; Neuronal divergence

About the artist: Anum Zahra is an MD, an epidemiologist, and a PhD candidate at the Julius Center, UMC Utrecht. She is originally from Pakistan and her research focuses on prediction modelling and improving COVID-19-related outcomes in the older population. Through all her scientific transitions, she explains: ‘art has been my constant language that has allowed me to communicate beyond the physical bounds of any language about disease’. Having always been interested in art, much of her earlier pieces were more traditional, such as landscape and portrait paintings. However, when her husband was finishing his PhD in paediatric neuro-oncology she decided to paint as a present a large painting with diverse neurological images for his thesis cover and chapters. This was the beginning of her exploration into scientific art and the beginning of her art business and charity in Pakistan called Amaya Initiative, which focuses on preventable child mortality. Additionally, Zahra has also conducted a scientific art workshop at the university to help scientists express their inner artist.

Inspiration and Composition: The inspiration and common thread for all three paintings was Zahra’s exploration of the human brain and its amazing potential. While the first two images are more a literal representation of the complexity and beauty of the brain, the last image of an unborn child addresses the theoretical untapped potential the human brain has from birth to death. The three paintings were created during the same phase of Zahra’s pregnancy, when she was experiencing the overwhelming feeling of amazement with the human body. Each of the images are painted with acrylics and explore different styles and techniques, however, the colours and patterns bring the three pieces together, which she closely relates to her background from Pakistan.

For each painting, Zahra prepared the canvas base in a solid colour and then layered thick strokes of acrylic paint over it with the paint tube nozzle to create more vibrant and three-dimensional layers of colour representing neuronal activity and connections. According to Zahra, ‘My art tells the story of science and beauty of infinite neuronal pathways that make scientists academic creatives and artists experts in the science of colours. Like the two halves of the brain, art and science are working together to guide me through a unified path of artistic creations that speaks to both the literal and imaginative parts of my consciousness as a researcher’.

Zahra hopes that those who come to the exhibition see the beauty of science in her three pieces, and that scientists see how art as a medium can help communicate complex scientific stories to larger audiences.

Connectome: A pathway to all ideas
For this painting, Zahra was inspired by Neuro Artist Greg Dunn, whose paintings and reflective microetchings illuminate the complexity of the human brain. In this meticulously drawn painting, Zahra captures one second of thought in the human brain. Similar to her work as a henna artist, each line has been hand drawn/painted individually with the tip of the acrylic paint nozzle, layer on top of layer, which took around a month of dedicated time to complete. ‘If you were to capture the image only seconds later, this image would be a completely different picture because there would be different parts of the brain talking to each other’. This complexity is what Zahra wanted to show and excite others with its awe-inspiring beauty.

Lost connection
This painting is one of Zahra’s earlier paintings and was created in a similar way to Connectome but on a smaller scale and using paint brushes. For this image, Zahra wanted to show the complexity and physiological path of what happens in the deterioration of an Alzheimer’s disease brain from a cellular level but also on a personal level. The image depicts brain sections at the upper and lower edge, which show brain shrinkage that results in the sulci and gyri becoming more prominent. Additionally, there is enlargement of the ventricles and cortical shrinkage. At the centre of the image, we see the neuronal network with beta amyloid plagues (depicted in orange) and dying nerve cells containing tangles (depicted in yellow). ‘I wanted to depict as accurately as possible, but also artistically what is happening in the brain of someone suffering with Alzheimer’s’.

Neuronal divergence
The last painting in this series is of an unborn child, which was inspired by Zahra’s own prenatal ultrasound. The in-utero foetal image focuses primarily on the brain and depicts the immense potential a brain processes even before birth. Something which fascinated Zahra during her pregnancy.

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