Artscape: Science Inspires Art To Explore Alzheimer's

Aug 27, 2015

Art and medicine have long been intertwined - from the earliest depictions of human anatomy to modern art therapy. A new art exhibit (“Interstice: Memory, Mind, and Alzheimer's Disease," open through September 9 in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University) takes that relationship in a new direction. A neuroscientist and artist teamed up with fellow artists to explore what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Brown University neuroscientist and Lifespan vice president Peter Snyder spends a lot of time staring at eyeballs.

“And I really see the eye as a window into the brain," says Snyder. "And I mean that literally. The eye is part of our central nervous system.”                                                                       

And so it sometimes reflects changes in the brain. Snyder’s research subjects have a family history of Alzheimer's Disease, or might be showing some imperceptible early signs of memory loss.

“And some of their eyes are in the vessel over there, looking out at you," Snyder points to one of his own works of art, placed on a table in the middle of the gallery. It’s a large, shallow bowl, carved from a single wood burl and polished to a dark, wavy shine. It holds hundreds of business cards, on one side a close-up photo of a patient’s eye, on the other a message about the impact of Alzheimer’s. In the lab, Snyder studies these images for clues.

"And so I’m looking in the eye with my research subjects to identify tiny, tiny little changes that may be harbingers of disease that I can then follow over time," Snyder says.

As a researcher, Snyder’s goal is to find a way to spot the earliest signs of Alzheimer's, so doctors can intervene sooner. As a wood turner and sculptor, Snyder wants to find other ways to convey the fear and uncertainty his patients feel about their diagnosis.

“As an artist, I believe there’s so much that can be conveyed visually and with multiple senses that our language alone can’t provide," says Snyder. 

So he enlisted local artists to help him convey what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s. For inspiration, Snyder gave the artists a mini-course on the science behind the disease: “I was showing them scans, images. I gave them a book to read. I put on my professor hat.”

The result is the multimedia exhibit "Interstice: Memory, Mind, and Alzheimer’s Disease." Snyder leads a tour through the gallery on opening night.

First, we walk through a narrow corridor, an installation by artist Babette Allina. Gauzy white fabric drapes over the corridor’s tilted wall. Slow-moving images of cherry blossoms morph from a video projector. It’s a bit claustrophobic, alienating. Snyder says that’s intentional.

“You’ll notice that most of the materials in this exhibit, the color palate, is kind of gray, white, black, a little bit aseptic, a little bit medical," explains Snyder. "And the medical environment is very unfamiliar, and very unsettling to most people.”

Snyder stops by another one of his own pieces. It’s a row of thick, floor-to-ceiling ropes on pulleys, studded with giant ceramic nuggets. He says it’s a 3-D model of the brain’s memory circuits.

“Memories are formed in the brain and contained and managed in memory circuits," he says. "These are neurons that are connected in columns and layers in the brain.”

But in this piece the neurons are loosely connected, and look like they're sliding down the ropes. The structure is collapsing, memories disintegrating, as they do in Alzheimer’s patients.

Artist Dianne Reilly also drew inspiration from the fragility of memory. Her piece is a solid steel frame. Inside, dangling from thin threads, hang heavy, teardrop-shaped orbs of glass, each wrapped in a web of tangled metal. As the gallery fills with visitors, Reilly says several magnifying glasses around the frame let visitors peer inside these orbs.

“The lenses reference the language of science and how we observe and understand the world around us," says Reilly. "They also create a sort of disorienting experience when you’re in other parts of the room.”

Reilly’s piece evokes the frustration of researchers looking for the right lens to understand a disease that affects millions of people. One of exhibit organizer Peter Snyder’s mentors has been peering through those lenses for decades now. Dr. Zaven Khachaturian was the architect of the nation’s first comprehensive Alzheimer’s disease research plan. He flew in for the exhibit’s opening night. In a quiet conference room near the gallery, he says research must now focus on prevention.

“We have no option but to find a way to prevent this disorder because taking care of it is not going to be enough," says Khachaturian. "There’s not going to be enough money to take care of it because the numbers are going to be enormous, the number of people with the disease.”

Five million Americans live with Alzheimer’s Disease today. That number could climb to 16 million in the next few decades, barring more scientific breakthroughs. The key, he says, is thinking creatively. He wants researchers from a range of disciplines to pitch in. Khachaturian says stopping Alzheimer’s is the creative challenge of a generation.

“Something like the genome project or man on the moon project,” says Khachaturian.

Mounting an art exhibit is a far cry from putting a man on the moon. But artists have often led us in new directions.