Father of Modern Neuroscience’s Art Comes to The Ackland

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Illustrated here are the injured Purkinje neurons of the cerebellum. This is one of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s 80 drawings on display at The Ackland Art Museum.

The human brain is undoubtedly one of the most complex structures known to mankind. Neuroscientist and artist Santiago Ramón y Cajal devoted his life to studying its mysteries. Over five decades of research and over 3,000 drawings of the brain led to his discovery that the brain is made up of individual nerve cells called neurons. And now his groundbreaking contributions to the field are on display in Chapel Hill. The Ackland Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal,” features 80 of Santiago’s drawings lent by the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain.

This is the first time a large number of Santiago’s drawings have been displayed in a large-scale show. “These are the most beautiful drawings I’ve seen in a long time,” said Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Ackland. “These are fantastic drawings. These are model art.” Organized by University of Minnesota neuroscientists Eric Newman, Alfonso Araque and Janet Dubinsky, the exhibition made its debut two years ago at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since then, the exhibit has traveled to three other museums in North America. The Ackland is the final and only stop in the Southeast before the collection of drawings is returned to the Institute.

The exhibition is organized into four themes: cells of the brain, sensory systems, neuronal pathways, and development and pathology. In addition to Santiago’s drawings, historical and anatomical books dating back to the 16th century, scientific tools and contemporary images are on display. Among those images are works from UNC’s neuroscience department. Mark Zylka, director of UNC Neuroscience Center, said it was a surprise and pleasure to find out that the exhibit was coming to town. “It’s very hard to communicate those things to the general public,” he said. “These are the sorts of things that we do every day in our lab, that we’re trying to understand, how these neurons work, how they communicate with one another, what goes wrong in the brain in the case of Alzheimer’s disease or autism.”

Santiago’s discovery became one of the fundamental principles of neuroscience today, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions in 1906. As a result, many scientists refer to him as the father of modern neuroscience. Although Santiago’s drawings are purely scientific, they visually appeal to everyone. “Drawings are so powerful and so important that they can summarize one drawing, a hypothesis, a whole story about how the brain works,” Eric said. “I personally consider him the greatest neuroscientist who ever were.”

“The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal,” is on view at the Ackland till April 7. Museum hours are Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays 1-5 p.m. More information is available at ackland.org.

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