Over The Brainbow

So here’s a story of serendipity.  I’ve been getting ready to write a post about a favorite keyboard work by Bach, which contains a fugue.  In an attempt to be clever, I was considering titling the post “Fugue State” or saying something like, “When I’m listening to this piece, I come to the edge of a fugue state.”  I wanted to be sure that I had the correct definition of this condition in mind, so did a quick Google search.  And I’m glad I did, for two reasons: first, I had not, in fact, been thinking of the correct terminology (a fugue state is actually a rare, and severe, form of amnesia); second, in my search I landed on a website that had a stunning banner image.  And down the rabbit hole I fell, Bach temporarily forgotten.

Here’s what I discovered.  In November of 2007, a team of researchers from Harvard University published an article in the scientific journal, Nature, in which they described a method they had developed for visualizing neurons in the brain.  Their method not only allowed them to see many, many cells at once, but it lit those cells up in fluorescent Technicolor.  The technique, aptly named Brainbow, has allowed scientists to map the neural circuitry in both normal and diseased brains, and it’s since been put to use in the study of many other cell populations as well.  As lead author Jean Livet put it, “The technique drives the cell to switch on fluorescent protein genes in neurons more or less at random…you can think of Brainbow almost like a slot machine in its generation of random outcomes.”

Random outcomes should always be this beautiful.

(And stay tuned for Bach).

The dentate gyrus of a mouse hippocampus (Tamily A. Weissman)
Purkinje neurons in a developing mouse cerebellum (Tamily A. Weissman)
Mossy fibers in a cerebellum gyrus (Tamily A. Weissman)
Retinal ganglion cells in a mouse (Joshua R. Sanes)
Mouse cerebral cortex (Jeff W. Lichtman)

Trivia tidbit:  I’ve always loved the story behind the word serendipity:

While researching a coat of arms in 1754, the English author Horace Walpole happened upon some interesting information.  In a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann, he wrote: “This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of…now do you understand Serendipity?”

(Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka).


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