gut. brain.

What do you visualize when you read the phrase Gut-Brain Axis? Or Brain-Gut Connection?

I picture very active brains communicating with very active intestines. Or is it the other way around? Both. It’s a two-way, busy connect especially when you consider the wandering nerve, aka, the vagus nerve. Think: 2-way, information highway. The vagus nerves are paired cranial nerves (CN X) and happen to be my favorite of all the nerves.  Because it is the longest nerve in the body it moves alongside heart and lungs and goes through all the organs of the digestive tract, connecting brain to gut.

I enjoy the challenge of capturing Veronica’s likeness while I work her profile.  I organize and sketch in the brain. The small area of my drawing is detailed into a collaged map of El Paso,TX,  where my cousin lives.

I have fun with the photo ↑ and strategically place color pencils to direct attention to the brainstem, the area of the brain I am working to understand.  I imagine the space to be like a facility loaded with chemicals and chemical messengers / hormones and neurotransmitters. Think: Food intake. Signals and controls. Many and complex. (FYI – purple pencil points to vagus nerve start.)

Some of the hormones involved include adipoectin (a protein hormone that modulates glucose regulation and fatty acid oxidation), and leptin (made by fat cells and decreases appetite).

Veronica, during our initial conversation, noted ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite. If I understand correctly, it is primarily released in the stomach and signals hunger to the brain. It also plays a role in determining how quickly hunger returns after a meal. And it promotes fat storage. After my surgery, she says, no more ghrelin. No more! What does this mean?  Forever? I ask.  I don’t know, she answers. And now you eat because??
I must live!
Ah…survival!

Side note: The hormones that play a role in obesity, do they also play a role in anorexia?

I haven’t brought the microbiome in yet. But I will. Now when I hear gut-brain, I also think of microbes.  FYI…they can influence hunger and satiety.

Anyway…I’m still laying ground work…which is both complicated to figure out and complicated to draw. Both my brain and my hands are keeping busy.

One more thing…
In early posts I highlight the brown adipose tissue (BAT) and the white adipose tissue (WAT). Now I study and set in subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) located under the skin and visceral adipose tissue (VAT).

In the image above, ↑ I enhance (darker area) the greater omentum (cool name! for an organ) , an example of VAT. It looks like lace, doesn’t it?  This apron of fatty tissue, connective tissue and lymphatics,  comes down from the stomach and stretches over the intestines. The greater omentum, aka, Policeman of the abdomen, might just be the first line of defense against toxins or infections (microbes).

BTW…yes, there is also a lesser omentum…

Meanwhile… drawing circles/making connections.


Keeping a note:
Amylin is a hormone, co-stored and co-secreted with insulin in response to nutrients. It promotes satiety by mediating brain function, including appetite inhibition.

Amylin also plays a role in neural regeneration. It helps regulate glucose metabolism and modulates inflammation. I pull it aside and note it here because of a possible link to Alzheimer’s Disease (Type II Diabetes).

motor and sensory cortical homunculus

Last June, I studied and drew out a small image of the motor and sensory cortical homunculus.  I’ve wanted to come back to it.

I organize materials and prep a 42×42″ canvas this weekend (now I wish I’d gone bigger).

Consider the somatosensory homunculus a neurological layout, mapping areas within the brain that process the various parts of your entire body. Isn’t the human brain and all that it coordinates (you and me) incredible?!!

I touch my head trying to locate the exact spot where my hands connect while picking up my brush and painting detail. The deep center of the sensory strips come to mind as I run. And while doing Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) in Yoga class, I trust I find balance within and without the body (internal left side of the brain influences external right side of the body, while internal right side influences external left).

The human brain is designed for movement, thought to action…

Cortical Homunculus – in process

I am brain and body.
I am sender and receiver.
I am neuron and synapse.
I am inside and outside.
Moving in space and standing still.
I am.


I see your beautiful brain…

© All Rights Reserved by Monica Aissa Martinez

present and re-present

Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the leading cause of neurodegenerative dementia associated with aging, affects over 5 million adults in the United States and is predicted to increase to 16 million affected by 2050. – Alzheimer’s Association 2017 


Looking at the PET scans  – I recognize his profile. This is my father.

Talking to my sister Mercedes, she reminds me how for years when one of us called out Dad! he’d yell  back, YO SOY EL SEÑOR MARTINEZ! 
I smile. I don’t ask if he still does this.

It’s natural when I make art to think about it as installation. I want some sense of a bigger picture. With this particular work, I imagine a small series of studies and words. Maybe the words are text (as marks) across a wall.

I ask mom, my 4 sisters and brother to jot down thoughts/words about dad, past or present, as I make a small scratchboard series of his PET scans.

Mercedes: His funny sayings – CON UN DIABLO!!

Dad never really cusses in front of us. My guess is this saying is his version of Damn it!

Elisa: He likes to play with words, he always has. Every time we pass a one-way sign or stop at a four-way stop sign he says…”un guey”. “Cuatro gueyes”.

Dad’s humor includes playing with words and the English and Spanish language. 

Elisa: He used to say grocerias for groceries. Now he says, narizona when we get to Arizona Street.

Elisa also sends recordings she’s made of some of their conversation. In one recording she asks dad about his sister Carmen, who died last month at the age of 99.

Elisa: How many years between you and Carmen?
Dad (who is 86): I don’t know, followed by a long pause, she was old enough to scold me.

Mercedes: He liked Gabriel-Garcia Marquez’s, Cien Años de Soledad.  He took us to the Plaza Theater to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein at Plaza…Jaws and Star Wars at Cielo Vista. 

I laugh because within minutes of Young Frankenstein starting, I saw in his face he’d  regretted it. Not a kid’s movie dad!

Mercedes: …summers and swimming, Washington Park and Armijo….with all the neighborhood kids.

Dad, for many years was a summer life-guard for the city summer recreation program. He took us to work with him every day, Monday to Friday (lucky mom). And along with us, he often did have many of the neighborhood kids piled into the station wagon.
He swears he taught me to swim. Maybe I didn’t pay attention. His mouth dropped when years later, as an adult, I told him about the afternoon I almost drowned at my best friends house.

Mercedes: He liked Yoga!

This comment brings back my 10-year old self, skipping over him as he holds Cobra Pose.

Mercedes: …candy apple red Alfa Romeo. Guayaberas. He taught me to make Gin and Tonics. He likes to eat :).

Gin and Tonics?!

Analissa’s memory takes her back to high school:  I went to the library to pick a book, I chose One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia-Marquez. He read it with me. He went on to read everything by him, took a class on the author and later magical realism. I thought that was cool – he made himself an expert just like that. I once went to play cello for a class he was taking. I forget the class, but I played the same program as Pablo Casals did at the Kennedy White House. I sensed he was proud.

Analissa (younger than the rest of us, never knew dad the lifeguard, but does know dad the swimmer):  I would go swimming with him, since I was a little girl. He taught me to swim. I have specific memories: his cadence and body movement and endurance – his swim bag and goggles, flip-flops and little shampoo bottles. The last time we went swimming I sensed it would be our last time at the pool together. So I stopped and just watched him swim the whole time.

…We once looked up the town he was in, in Germany, on Google Earth. It was exciting for both of us. He had 3 memories: The train station that would take him into town, the ‘biergarten’ where they would drink, and the cathedral where they’d go to church after drinking all night on Saturday, then back to the train station. We found all three of those things, they were still there.
Dad is funny. 

Chacho, my brother, notes John Nichols and the Milagro Beanfield War – When I read it, at Cathedral, he told me it was one of his favorite books.  He would read it at least once a year. He likes Hemingway. When I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls he would tell me about it. He had the movie on VHS.
His favorite drink is Negra Modelo.

‘El Sapo High’…He says this every time we pass El Paso High School. 

Clearly Dad read a lot and – he suggested I read Cortázar’s Rayuela and also the English translation titled Hopscotch. The book had instructions in it on how to read it. Apparently it bounces from the past to the present. Instructions?! Too complicated dad!
It’s still on my list.

One of my sisters never responded and mom wasn’t sure what to say. She’s in the thick of it with taking care of dad.

As Artist-in-Residence, I focus on dementia and Alzheimer’s this summer.

I sit at my drawing table at the Tempe Center for the Arts, talking to people who come in and share their personal stories about how dementia touches their lives. I’ve connected with professionals on the issue. And last week a chemical engineer visiting the gallery talked to me about President Reagan, who died of Alzheimer’s. He was known to drink a coke a day. This chemical engineer, who spoke 5 languages, told me about a project he took in Japan shortly after graduating and consequently he never drinks out of aluminum cans if he can help it – only bottles for him.

…I know I want these small scratchboards bigger. I admit, this summer it sometimes feels odd to be working with new materials, mixing colors, and laying out ideas.

Raising awareness…my own and yours.


Tempe, AZ →  Dementia Friendly City
More → The Alzheimers Association
Special TIME Edition June 2018 → The Science of Alzheimers

cortical homunculus

This last week artist friend Tim, who has an undergrad degree in Neurobiology, sends me an image of a figure. Cortical homunculus, thought you mike like it, he writes.  He explains…a map of the nerve receptors in the brain as related to scale on the body. I know the 2D version of this 3D form and immediately  make the connection.

Cortical homunculus! Why didn’t I ever look closer and why didn’t I note the cool name (words always pull me)?  Homunculus is Latin for little man, add cortical and you have a cortex man (a man in the brain!). The depiction basically represent a map of the body, more specific, nerve fibers from the spinal cord, that end at various points in the parietal lobe formulating a map of the body. I see mostly male (it is a little man, after all) though I do find female representations.

Initiated by Dr. Wilder Penfield who envisioned an imaginary world in which a homunculi (a very small humanoid form) lived. He and his colleagues set up experiments to produce a topographical brain map and a corresponding homunculi.

I enjoy working out the composition and now that I understand, I plan to draw more of them. No doubt, my versions will include the female in the brain!

I label as best I can considering the space I set up before I know all that I will include. One side of the homunculus maps the sensory nerves, while the other side maps motor nerves. ↓

Sensory Cortex (sensory body map)

Motor Cortex (motor body map)

Scheduled to facilitate an adult workshop in mid July, for my artist-in-residency, I now consider the color, line and text of the Cortical homunculus.

Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

I spend the last few days isolating and drawing the regions of the brain.  The earlier studies I work last winter, the beautiful bones of the cranium, lay out for me basic information connecting to the brain. Knowing I will eventually focus on the organ, I certainly don’t know I’ll be focusing on dementia and Alzheimer’s this summer. I also don’t know, as I begin this study, June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.

I don’t have an outline for how to move through all this. I learn, I draw – I draw, I learn. I begin with basic groundwork.  I work out neurons and glia and now I look at the cerebrum and limbic system. I am looking for the hippocampus as it relates to Alzheimer’s.

I pause here to tell you the brain is beautiful and so full of complexity (form and pattern). I am lost in the labyrinth now.

I start by laying out regions of the cerebrum, using a slightly different color of blue for each area.

The Frontal Lobe in bright blue.

Occipital Lobe (in the back of the cerebrum)

Do you see the hippocampus (the center c-like ↑ structure) buried deep in the center of the image? It’s not highlighted yet.

Parietal Lobe – dark blue upper back

Note the white areas atop ↑ the brain identifying the motor and sensory strips. I leave them color free only to know where they are as I work – eventually I outline them in blue.

Temporal Lobe – center lower right area

As I draw I try to understand something about each area – so much to learn.

In general, the hippocampus processes declarative memories and spatial relationships. This is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Patients begin to lose short-term memory and may also find it a challenge to follow directions.

Called the hippocampus, the organ is said to resemble a seahorse (from the Greek hippos is horse and campus is sea monster).  Living in the desert my whole life, I decide it resembles a Devil’s Claw seed pod.


A side note:
This morning I talk to Ryan, a roofer who is doing some work for us. He tells me about the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona.  Apparently sometime back he sustained a brain injury from a biking accident. He informs me the average helmet lasts about 4 to 5 years and most people don’t think to replace their own. He explains with time the lining hardens.

The conversation is interesting because as I research dementia, I also learn the same defective Tau protein found in Alzheimer’s disease is identifiable in the neurons of athletes who have in earlier years sustained serious concussions.

This week I hear the brain being described as a gelatinous organ protected by a rigid bony skull. It does needs protection from impact and jarring.

I mention I didn’t know June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. I know it  and now you know it too.