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neuronNeuroscience Center

When fine artist Taryn Moller Nicoll’s Coast Guard Rescue Diver husband sustained injuries requiring surgery and an extensive recovery process, her artistic sensibility took a decided turn. To understand what was happening with him, she began to consider the minute physical processes involved in both trauma and healing. As an artist, she visualized it. Her mind’s eye delved deep below what the naked eye can see, and this point of view inspired a new artistic genre. Nicoll founded an art movement called In Vivo, Latin for “within the living,” -- where fine art, medical science and the human body intersect. And it’s in full practice here at LSU Health New Orleans’ Neuroscience Center of Excellence. Not your typical Neuroscience fellowship recipient, Nicoll is the Center’s, and LSU Health New Orleans’ first Artist in Residency.
Working with Nicolas Bazan, MD, PhD, Boyd Professor and Director of LSU Health New Orleans’ Neuroscience Center of Excellence, and a team of highly regarded neuroscientists, postdocs and students, Nicoll examines brain and retina tissue under the microscope to aesthetically interpret the intricacies of the human mind and sight on canvas.

One of their first collaborations and one of her more striking pieces is her interpretation of Alzheimer’s Disease.

cerebral battleground
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013, as many as 5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s Disease. The number of people with the disease doubles every five years beyond age 65. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to 14 million. It is the sixth leading cause of death among US adults. By 2040, the costs associated with <p>the disease are projected to reach $500 billion each year. There is currently no cure.

“We feel that our collaboration can help in the battle against Alzheimer’s because awareness in our society and among decision makers might mean more resources,” says Bazan. “The only way to conquer Alzheimer’s would be with a lot more resources than we have today to gain new knowledge about disease cellular and molecular mechanisms.”

Taryn sketching
“Hopefully it will bring more awareness to the conditions. People will be able to draw comfort from knowing that there is that connection between them and others and that it will further help educate and inspire people,” notes Nicoll.

With a topic selected, work began.

“This is very sophisticated stuff. We are interested in specific cells in the brain in very early stages of Alzheimer’s because what we are trying to do is find ways to attenuate the initiation of the disease,” says Bazan.” I believe that is the therapeutic challenge in conquering Alzheimer’s disease.”
He recalls, “before she came, we found images representative of the disease–initiation and progression. I wanted to give her the stuff, and she said, can I go and look in the microscope? I was so impressed. She spent hours and hours studying the key elements of the pathology of Alzheimer’s that we are working on in my lab. She came with pictures in her hand, and when she sat down, her face lit up. She wanted to know, what is that cell over there that ended up here?”

“I had done several smaller studies just working with the images and the sketches that I had made and they weren’t living to me; they were static,” Nicoll adds. “To see these real examples of actual brain tissue actually experiencing Alzheimer’s or showing signs of Alzheimer’s on a microscopic level is critical to the understanding and development of these pieces. The greatest artists throughout history worked from life. It’s really, really challenging to create an authentic work of art without actually witnessing it in person. It’s one thing if you start it, and then finish it in your studio afterwards. But that experience of seeing it with your own eyes is invaluable. You can’t replicate that.”

Bazan continues, “she also asked me to send her a lecture I gave the medical students about Alzheimer’s, and there was Rita Hayworth. And she read it, and she picked a real person.“

“I needed there to be a key protagonist for the work who was experiencing these things in his or her brain in order to bring the data and facts to life,” says Nicoll. “Rita Hayworth really stood out to me. What I was aiming for and what we had discussed that we wanted to achieve within this piece was the idea of cinematic catastrophe within the brain, a battlefield, a cerebral minefield of things taking place within the human brain. So, to connect a golden era screen goddess to the human brain was really important for me. I felt like it was a metaphor that really stood the test. Is this a real person? Yes. Is she iconic? Yes. Do people recognize her? Can they relate to her? Can they draw connections between what is going on here and her life story? Yes, yes and yes.”

“So here is a contribution from a very talented artist in a very original and powerful way in this battle to conquer this disease,” says Bazan.“

The piece was so successful, even unfinished, and the idea of this type of collaboration so rare that Bazan and Nicoll submitted an abstract that was accepted for presentation by the American Neurological Association at the 2013 annual meeting. The idea of an artist helping medical professionals studying brain diseases proved too intriguing to pass up.

“It was very unusual for them to receive an abstract of that nature,” says Bazan. “AAN provided the platform and visibility for this work because I really do think that it has touched a lot of people so far.

Nicoll grew up in South Africa during the last years of apartheid. Watching her parents help people in her dad’s pharmacy gave purpose to her life, too.

“The political situation that I was born into and then my parents and their own mission in life, it just created this sort of indestructible belief in optimism in faith, in positivity and forward progression. So for me, even when I’m handling a story that maybe wasn’t a success story within and of itself, I feel like the lesson and the meaning of the story can really reach people. And that provides the platform for healing, provides the platform to believe that you are not alone. For me, the critical element in every piece of work that I do is hope and optimism.”

longitudinal groove
“At the end of the day, it’s about this body that makes us human. And the experience that makes us human. It is the most sophisticated creation there has ever been. I would like to restore the understanding of the body, the respect for the body to help people feel like if the body is healing itself the whole time and it’s always aiming, always moving forward until its last breath, that we can do the same.”

“Her art to me is a window of hope for humanity,” Bazan concludes. “Even as young as she is, the totality of her thinking and her art and her talent highlights the dignity of life and the dignity of humanness.”

Dr. Bazan and Taryn