Art and neuroscience have been intertwined for centuries. Early surgeons and scientists who poked and prodded inside cranial cavities—such as Santiago Ramn y Cajal—often drew what they saw. These artistic renderings played a critical role in helping researchers grapple with the mysteries of our most vital organ. (Cajal even shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 for his drawings.) Methods for exploring the brain have (thankfully) changed, and our understanding has evolved. The desire to visualize what we discover, however, has persisted.

For the ninth year in a row, the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam has published the winners of its annual Art of Neuroscience competition. The contest celebrates artists and scientists who strive to illustrate the brain’s complexities. This year’s entrants questioned the origins of imagination, imaged collagen fiber, modeled starlike brain cells called astrocytes and explored other intricacies. Presented below—selected from 87 submissions representing 25 countries—are the winning entry, four honorable mentions and five works selected by Scientific American’s editors.*

Credit: pt9 (Olesya Ilyenok, Marina Muzak’s and Andrew Chugunov); images were generated with StyleGAN; voice was generated with Google WaveNET; image descriptions were generated with Betaface API

by pt9 (Olesya Ilyenok, Marina Muzyka and Andrey Chugunov)

This video employs three artificial-intelligence-based computing systems inspired by human brain networks. The resulting three neural networks simulate the brain’s ability to generate abstract images, sounds and concepts inspired by prior experiences, a phenomenon better known as imagination. In the winning video, produced by members of the pt9 art group at Far Eastern Federal University in Russia, one neural network produces a string of jarring images prompted by a catalogue of existing photographs; a second neural network generates image descriptions; and the third neural network reads the descriptions aloud.

Credit: Albert Barqu-Duran 

Ultimate Emoji
by Albert Barqu-Duran

This piece reflects the complex ways we use characters to communicate human emotion. Lecturer Barqu-Duran of the University of Lleida in Spain and City, University London, first analyzed data from a previous project that scraped social media posts to map how people feel about the places they visit. From these data, he identified a series of emotions associated with the Design Museum of Barcelona, and assigned corresponding emoji to those emotions. He then 3-D printed a composite of the emoji. During a live performance at the museum he painted the resulting sculpture.

“Art or Fact”
by Markos Kapeliotis, Rebeca Alejandra Gavrila Laic, Nele Famaey and Pieter Vanden Berghe

A flood of colorful collagen fibers splay out in this image of a bridging vein (which drains neural tissue), taken by a team at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Within the brain’s tangle of structures and shapes, Kapeliotis and his colleagues were struck, in particular, by the horse-shaped fiber on the left side of the image.

Credit: Elizabeth Parent and Liam O'Leary (Cristian Zaelzer-Perez, videographer)

Starlight Gone
by Elizabeth Parent and Liam O’Leary

Astrocytes, starlike brain cells that support nearby damaged cells, have recently been linked to the onset of depression. In this interactive installation by multimedia artist Parent and neuroscience Ph.D. candidate O’Leary of McGill University, wire astrocyte replicas light up as participants move toward them and dim as participants step away, mirroring the cyclical relationship between depression and loneliness.

Perineuronal Nets in Spring
by Ana Jakovljevi

Biologist Jakovljevi of the University of Belgrade in Serbia crafted a wire replica of a perineuronal net—a web of tissue that wraps around neurons developing in the central nervous system. These structures may be key to understanding neural plasticity in the human brain. The flowers, Jakovljevi said in a statement, represent “the beauty of a neuronal architecture.”

Looking Inward and Outward
by Rik Gern

“The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the retina is a window to the brain,” according to a description of this image from artist Gern, who superimposed a whimsical landscape and star-studded sky onto a retinal scan provided by his optometrist. Light-sensitive cells within the retinal layer trigger the optic nerve, which forms the visual images we see.

“Human Neurons Growing in Three Dimensions”
by Kevin Batenburg

This three-dimensional snapshot captures a tapestry of colorful, sinewy neural axons, and was  taken by functional genomics researcher Batenburg of Vrije University Amsterdam. Studying the cells in three dimensions allows scientists to get a fuller understanding of the role that neurons play in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“I’m Just a Glia, Standing in Front of a Neuron, Asking Him to Love Her”
by Claudio Polisseni

What would neurons be without the glial cells that surround and support them? Nothing, argues physicist Polisseni of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, who took this image of a glial cell (purple, left) wrapping around a neuron (yellow, right).

by Dan Jagger

This image shows a mosaic of cells within the utricular macula—the thin membrane within the ear that helps maintain balance. The hair cells’ sensitive bundles of stereocilia (stained green) cue the brain to changes in fluid motion within the inner ear. Image taken by physiologist Jagger of University College London.

The Walking Brain
by Michele Angelo Colombo

Neuroscientist and artist Colombo of the University of Milan in Italy plotted brain waves from an electroencephalogram (EEG) as a single dot moving across a two-dimensional plane. According to Colombo, the angular change between data points from the original EEG corresponds to a change in direction as the dot moves. This technique offers a new way to visualize and analyze data from EEGs.

*Photography editor Liz Tormes served on the panel of judges for the competition.