Art Meets Science in Treating MS

For the past 15 years, Ye He, manager of the Live Imaging and Bioenergetics Facility and a research assistant professor at the Neuroscience Iniative at The Graduate Center’s Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), has been searching for new ways to treat neurological diseases, mainly multiple sclerosis, a disease she calls “devastating.” A dedicated and well-credentialed scientist, she also sees art as a way to heal and educate.

That is what spurred her to participate in this year’s “Art of the Brain,” an exhibition hosted by the Friedman Brain Institute, part of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai that celebrates “the beauty of the brain as seen through the eyes of some of the world’s leading researchers and medical illustrators.”

“I want to use this imaging to say be strong and live still a colorful life no matter what kind of difficulty you have,” He said of her brightly colored image “Glia Blossom.” In particular, she was thinking of people with MS, whose life can become “dark and gray.”

The exhibition opening on March 12 — the first day of Brain Awareness Week — confirmed that she’s not alone in thinking this. Several people approached her about buying the artwork. Artists they were close to had MS and they were “probably interested in purchasing the image for their beloved friends,” He said.

While the exhibition is intended to raise funds to support brain research, He has a special cause for which she is raising money. A dear friend lapsed into a coma during the delivery of her second daughter. While the baby was released from ICU one month after birth, the mom was comatose for two months. “I hope the two baby girls will grow happily in their future life with these donations,” He said.

At the opening, He happily fielded questions from people of all ages who were curious to learn more about her work. “If they don’t see the beautiful images, they won’t ask about the scientific implications,” He said.

So, what does the image depict? It shows five days of growth of oligodendrocytes, a type of glial cell (the cells that surround and support neurons) responsible for producing myelin. Myelin is a fatty substance that wraps around the axons — the extensions of neurons that carry messages through our brain and nervous system — and allows signals to pass safely and quickly. It’s like the coating on electrical wire.

In MS, an immune system attack damages or destroys the myelin and the oligodendrocytes. The result is similar to faulty wiring. “You lose mobility and language functions because the signal cannot transmit correctly,” He said.

She and colleagues at ASRC Neuroscience Initiative led by Patrizia Casaccia want to understand how oligodendrocytes grow in vitro so that they can find new ways to spur their development in the body and, ultimately, repair or prevent the damage of MS.

“Ye sees scientific imaging as art and a way to heal and educate and her passion and dedication to science, her ability to push the boundaries of current knowledge and face new challenges permeate her work, Casaccia said. “I am very proud of her accomplishments.”

“There’s an urgent need to find a cure and treatment for MS,” He said. “It’s a very sad, very devastating disease for any family.”