In Part 1, we explored the inspiration behind one of the paintings featured in Your Brain on Art and learned about the big ways that nutrition can have an impact on your health. Part 2 will take a deeper dive into this topic while illustrating the research behind another YBOA painting, Ellipse by Veronica Funk.
The story behind this painting begins with a slide from Dr. Maryam Faiz's lab at the University of Toronto (on the right). This microscope slide depicts a region of the small intestine where the red colours are white blood cells, the workforce of our body's defense system. Cytokines are immune cells' method of communicating with each other and coordinating the immune response, which is used to rally inflammation to help deal with foreign pathogens (like a certain virus). The green cells in the slide depict white blood cells that have an important role in shutting off the inflammation response (with anti-inflammatory cytokines). Normally these two classes of white blood cells work collaboratively, but in certain auto-immune diseases, like Multiple Sclerosis, this balance is lost and the immune system will actually damage non-foreign cells. Unfortunately, trying to fix this imbalance with pharmaceuticals has not led to much success for Multiple Sclerosis treatments. Dr. Faiz thinks the key to fixing this imbalance could be related to the location of the slide on the right: the small intestine.
Eubacterium rectale, Eubacterium ramulus, and Roseburia cecicola. These words are not a spell from Harry Potter, but they refer to 3 species of bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract; AKA our gut)1 and do something magical. Part 1 of this article introduced the relationship our Enteric Nervous System (ENS; AKA our mini-brain) has with the microbiome for aiding digestion. The focus of Dr. Faiz's work is the role of the microbiome in helping regulate the immune system. The 3 bacteria listed above have the near-magical ability to create a nutrient called butyrate, which can boost the anti-inflammatory signalling from the green cells1. But butyrate only gets made if those bacteria are well-fed, and of their favourite foods is the fibre we get from certain fruits and vegetables2. Ironically, humans can't actually digest fibre for nutrients, so the rationale for a high-fibre diet is all based on keeping our microbiome fed and happy so that it in turn can help us regulate inflammation. Imagine, what if instead of taking pills to address neurological disorders, we changed our diet to promote different colonies of bacteria to help us fix the problem? Dr. Faiz thinks that her research could set the foundation for us to begin doing exactly that, highlighting its clinical impact even at this early stage.
The final piece of symbolism in Ellipse that I want to explain is the pattern of glial cells on the girl's dress. Glial cells are like white blood cells that live in the brain and hunt down pathogens able to infect our Central Nervous System. They are pictured on the right as the red/blue cells in the microscope slide. If the immune system has created too much inflammation, this can cause microglia to disrupt brain functioning, which leads to many different mental health conditions3, some of which have had an impact on the artist's personal life. Dr. Faiz is specifically studying the role of Butyrate in two different neurological conditions, Multiple Sclerosis and stroke. Since both of these disorders involve excessive inflammation causing damage to the brain, one would hypothesize that the anti-inflammatory effects of Butyrate could be an effective treatment for both conditions. Unfortunately, the immune system is very complex4, so it might be the case that the chronic inflammation seen in Multiple Sclerosis could have a different relationship with the microbiome than the chronic inflammation profile seen in stroke patients. So Dr. Faiz is testing her hypotheses about Butyrate and glial cells using both disorders to better understand if a gut-based treatment could work for the inflammation seen in just one condition or both. Regardless, however, this research highlights the reciprocal nature between the food that we eat (the apple in the painting) and our brain health (the glial cells on the dress) that could be channelled as a form of healing. If the anti-inflammatory properties of Butyrate works in both the Multiple Sclerosis and the stroke experiments, it's possible that the impact of this research could extend even further to the various mental health conditions that can be triggered by neuroinflammation3. It's amazing what our Gut-Brain Axis can do when its properly fed, which is why we need to learn more about the science of trusting our gut.
Ellipse will be auctioned off as part of the virtual Your Brain On Art March 11 virtual gala to fund more innovative brain health research on topics like the ENS and the microbiome.
Check out the other incredible neuroscience-inspired art pieces featured in the YBOA gala (March 11, 6:00-8:00PM MST) and get your tickets before they run out! .
Scientist + Artist = Impact
Your Brain on Art is a collaboration where world-class neuroscientists inspire artists to use their creative talents to raise awareness for brain health research.
Dr. Maryam Faiz
...about NeuroCAM and inflammation
...about a walking intervention for MS
...about how Trauma impacts the Hippocampus
1. Barcenilla, A., Pryde, S. E., Martin, J. C., Duncan, S. H., Stewart, C. S., Henderson, C., & Flint, H. J. (2000). Phylogenetic relationships of butyrate-producing bacteria from the human gut. Applied and environmental microbiology, 66(4), 1654-1661.
2. Bourassa, M. W., Alim, I., Bultman, S. J., & Ratan, R. R. (2016). Butyrate, neuroepigenetics and the gut microbiome: can a high fiber diet improve brain health?. Neuroscience letters, 625, 56-63.
3. Réus, G. Z., Fries, G. R., Stertz, L., Badawy, M., Passos, I. C., Barichello, T., ... & Quevedo, J. (2015). The role of inflammation and microglial activation in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders. Neuroscience, 300, 141-154.
4. Fraunberger, E., & Esser, M. J. (2019). Neuro-Inflammation in Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury—From Mechanisms to Inflammatory Networks. Brain sciences, 9(11), 319.