Art&Science: Parkinson’s Disease Edition
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Art&Science: Parkinson’s Disease Edition

This blog was written by Dr. Dorotea Fracchiolla, a scientist and Project Manager for Team Hurley and an enthusiastic scientific illustrator. In 2020 she founded her independent activity as scientific illustrator under the name of Art&Science. Since then she has been involved in a variety of projects aimed at representing science by images through the means of art, making it available to both experts and the general public. She has showcased her work at art exhibitions in Austria and Germany, designed cover artwork selected by several journals, and is actively organizing hands-on workshops to introduce children and the general public to science.

Showcasing the ASAP CRN through Art

The Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative is founded on the idea that collaboration and open science practices, such as resource generation and data sharing, can accelerate discoveries to find a cure for Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Within ASAP lies the Collaborative Research Network (CRN), an international, multi-institutional, multidisciplinary network consisting of 35 teams who bring together a wide range of expertise to tackle complex questions related to Parkinson’s disease. 

Each year, members of the ASAP CRN are given the opportunity to attend an in-person meeting where they can share scientific discoveries, build connections, and start collaborations. In 2023, ASAP hosted two, week-long meetings in San Diego, CA (USA), and London (UK), which were filled with scientific discussions pertaining to the state of the field for Parkinson’s disease. The PD research presented by the network during these occasions inspired Dorotea Fracchiolla and led to the creation of a series of two paintings, which represent the topics discussed throughout these meetings.

Parkinson’s Disease Research: A Complex & Inspiring Muse

(Photo Credit: Aura Studio)

At first glance, the pieces in the Art&Science: Parkinson’s Disease series appear to show the changing of time across the world, with images that clearly depict day and night, dawn and sunset as well as continents, nature, and man-made structures.  However, if the viewer takes a closer look, they’ll begin to see that, like Parkinson’s disease, these pieces are complex. Indeed, the two paintings in the series are filled with symbolism, which upon further inspection provide the viewer with a story about Parkinson’s disease progression. 

Rising of PD

PD progression and the underlying factors associated with progression were a major focus point during the 2023 ASAP Collaborative Meeting: San Diego. The first painting of the series, “Rising of PD,” represents some of the discussions that took place by transporting the viewer through the progression from healthy to disease states at the organ, cellular, and molecular level.

Disease Progression

On the right side of the piece, PD progress is depicted by highlighting characteristic PD attributes, such as the loss of dopaminergic neuron function and the accumulation of alpha-synuclein protein. Here, the tree-shaped brains, which stem from the ground, advance from a healthy to a diseased state when moving from day to night. The impairment of dopaminergic neurons is represented as red apples along the base of the tree crowns, corresponding to an area of the brain called the substantia nigra, where these neurons are localized. Deep in the soil, the plant roots mimic the highly arborized dopaminergic neuron terminals as they appear inside the brain. With disease progression, dopaminergic neurons lose the ability to secrete dopamine, an excitatory neurotransmitter that mediates their function. The loss of dopamine is represented in the painting through the presence of white speckles. In an opposite trend, pathological inclusions, shown as dark stones in the painting, start to accumulate in the diseased neurons and in the space around them, thus affecting their function. 

Impact of PD Research & the CRN

Although the painting depicts disease progression, hope is not lost in this piece. The viewer will notice that as the disease advances, streams of water start to form in the soil. These streams are representative of the potential for therapies to sustain dopaminergic neuronal activity and ameliorate disease. Although the field has much to understand about PD, robust research programs that tackle the knowledge gaps found in PD may provide a mechanism for filling those gaps, potentially paving the way toward new therapeutic development. 

Members of the CRN are pursuing multiple approaches to answer PD-related questions and provide further understanding for PD pathogenesis. A few of these approaches, such as assessing the degradation of mitochondria (referenced as the Gulf of Mexico in the painting) or the endo-lysosomal trafficking pathway (referenced in the painting’s depiction of the Atlantic Ocean), are represented on the left side of the globe. 

Along the outer edge of the globe, are silhouettes of animals and people. These silhouettes represent the animal models that are utilized by members of the CRN to carry out their investigations and all members of the ASAP initiative who are working towards advancing knowledge in PD. 

Towards Ending PD

“Towards Ending PD,” the second painting in the series, centers around the topics that were discussed during the 2023 ASAP Collaborative Meeting: London. Viewers will notice that this piece is similar to “Rising of PD,” with imagery of the world. However, this second piece expands upon the first painting by widening the focus area to highlight The Complex Nature of PD and showcase Recent Advancements in the PD field. 

Recent Advances in PD

Unlike other afflictions, which utilize biological samples to accurately diagnose the disease, a PD diagnosis has previously relied on clinical attributes, rather than on a biological test. A striking advancement in the field has been the development of a laboratory assay, the Seed Amplification Assay (SAA) that allows the detection of the disease marker alpha-synuclein in the Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) of patients long before PD symptoms arise (Siderowf et al., 2023). To illustrate this advancement, the painting portrays a scientist harvesting fruits (alpha-synuclein aggregates) from the tree (CSF specimen source) and collecting them in large baskets, which represent the amplification assay.  

The Complex Nature of PD

PD is extremely complex, incorporating internal and external environmental signals from a variety of sources. To depict this concept, the painting illustrates the human gut, deep in the soil below the scientist, to show how alpha-synuclein tangles may travel along the gut-to-brain or brain-to-gut axis, thus spreading throughout the patient’s body. Below all other trees, viewers will notice the motif of roots that were part of “Rising of PD” to once again mimic highly arborized dopaminergic axon terminals. Here, the painting shows these cells interacting with other cell types of the human brain, such as astrocytes (light violet), microglia (purple), and T-cells of the immune system (blue). 

Although much of this painting focuses on cell-to-cell interactions, molecular and intracellular processes associated with PD, which were primarily depicted in “Rising of PD,” are also referenced in this painting. On the right-hand side of the piece, viewers will see depictions of mitochondrial release of Mitochondrial-Derived Vesicles and mitochondrial DNA, processes which initiate the cellular immune response.

While research indicates that both the innate and adaptive immune responses contribute to exacerbating PD pathogenesis, there is also evidence that environmental stressors, like pesticides used in agriculture, also contribute to PD, as shown along the lower left rim of the globe.  

The Interconnected Nature of ASAP

The ASAP initiative supports multiple programs, which each play a role in advancing our understanding of Parkinson’s disease. Members from many of these initiatives attended the 2023 Collaborative Meetings in San Diego or London to provide their perspectives on the state of the Parkinson’s disease field. Although the paintings in this series specifically reference the San Diego and London meeting locations, as depicted in the city skyline that crowns each painting, the reality is that ASAP is an international endeavor, consisting of researchers worldwide, who are encouraged to openly share their findings with the scientific community around the world in the hopes that these efforts will accelerate a cure for Parkinson’s disease.