The art of intelligent ageing

New exhibition features portraits of the Lothian Birth Cohorts.

As every researcher knows, participants are central to the success of a study. This is especially true of longitudinal cohort studies where the project can last decades, tracking the natural history of health and disease. A unique exhibition taking place in Edinburgh is honouring a remarkable group of older people to celebrate the personalities that underlie valuable data sets. Vibrant portraits of participants and researchers by renowned artist Fionna Carlisle will be displayed alongside scientific treasures, marrying art and science and celebrating the lives of individuals who make research possible.

In an ambitious attempt to take a snapshot of a nation’s intelligence, 11-year-olds across Scotland undertook the Scottish Mental Survey intelligence test in June 1932 and in 1947, providing an insight into the cognitive ability and social background of almost all of Scotland’s children born in 1921 and 1936. Decades later, Ian Deary – now Professor of Differential Psychology at the University of Edinburgh – found out about these surveys and spotted a rare opportunity to chart factors that influence ageing across the life course.

The Lothian Birth Cohorts (LBCs) of 1921 and 1936 are now some of the most intensively studied participants that exist. Members have been followed up as adults since 1999, providing data on lifestyle, psychosocial factors, brain imaging, genetics, health, blood-based biomarkers, sensory function, and of course detailed cognitive testing. Evidence from the cohorts has shaped policy and provided evidence for the protective effects of, for example, not-smoking, fitness, and language learning on brain ageing.

In the forthcoming exhibition – The Art of Intelligent Ageing: Portraits of the Lothian Birth Cohorts – Fionna Carlisle has captured the individuality and depth of her subjects using her signature style of colourful, bold brushstrokes to reflect a vitality that complements the LBCs hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific reports. Her portraits execute a transformation of the sitter-as-seen that is also missing from photographs, weaving the life story and spirit of the sitter into the painted image. She said: ‘The camera is instant, whereas the artist listens and studies the sitters to gradually build a human picture. With these paintings I wanted to filter age and show the youth and spirit of the older sitters as people who have real bodies and limbs, spirit and life.’

The paintings are showcased alongside scientific highlights from the study, including a 3D-printed brain and laser-etched crystal block of the brain of one LBC member, John Scott, which details intricate patterns of his brain’s white matter tracts etched in the clear crystal. A new portrait of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Peter Higgs by Fionna will also be on display. Peter Higgs also took part in a cognitive ageing study in Edinburgh.

The exhibition was proposed and organised by Professor Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, and the pictures are curated by Duncan Thomson, former Director at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Professor Deary said: ‘The Lothian Birth Cohorts have encouraged my scientific team to scour their minds, bodies, and histories to build rich and valuable accounts of their negotiating the whips and scorns of time. One can always add to that. Funny, Fionna’s pictures were done at about the same time that we did whole-genome sequencing on the cohort, and we value both as showing new facets of the participants.’

- The free exhibition will run on Tuesdays to Saturdays from 27 October to 24 November at the Fire Station, Edinburgh College of Art.

Find more on the Scottish Mental Survey in our archive.

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