The Arts of Neuroscientists: Stanley Froehner, Ph.D.

Caitlin Schneider
May 7, 2012

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 300 leading neuroscientists, works to advance public awareness about the progress and promise of brain research. As eminent neuroscientists, Alliance members harbor an intense passion for scientific research and progress, but many of our members also have passions outside neuroscience: Some are musicians, others visual artists, and one member even makes his own wine. This is the second of a series of conversations with Alliance members about their artistic pursuits.

Stanley C. Froehner, Ph.D.

Some scientists find that their art and research build upon each other, but for Stanley C. Froehner, Ph.D., art and neuroscience are complementary but separate endeavors. In the lab, Dr. Froehner, chairman of the department of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, works to understand the dystrophin associated protein complex and its role in muscular dystrophies. Outside the lab, he uses photography to take a mental hiatus from his work.

“You know how scientists are, we obsess about what’s going on the lab; we think about it all the time,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “But when I go home and do photography, I’m thinking about that, so I’m using a different part of my brain. It’s really very relaxing.”

On the Bench

Dr. Froehner’s research is supported largely by NIH but also by Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD), the largest nonprofit in the United States dedicated solely to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Dr. Froehner first became acquainted with PPMD around 10 years ago when he received an email from Pat Furlong, the organization’s founder, who wanted him to attend its annual meeting.

“I had never known anyone who had any connection with a boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy [DMD], and here there were 400 parents,” he said. “And I left that meeting thinking ‘This isn’t just an intellectual exercise. For these people, this is real life.’”

Each year, there are about 20,000 new cases of Duchenne, which affects about 1 in every 3,500 live male births.  There is no cure for DMD. Because the disease is particularly aggressive, boys with Duchenne typically need assistance with breathing at night by the time they are teenagers. However, now that respiratory care has improved, cardiac problems are the cause of death in an increasing number of cases. Dr. Froehner’s lab studies the effects of sildenafil, an FDA-approved drug that inhibits cardiac and diaphragm dysfunction in mouse models of Duchenne. The drug is more commonly known as Viagra.

“I got a mixture of strange looks and nervous laughter,” he said of telling the parents at the annual PPMD conference about this latest research.

Trials with Viagra on DMD boys are underway. Dr. Froehner, who has done basic science research for most of his career and is continuing his work on dystrophin, which can cause Duchenne when it’s mutated, enjoys doing something with serious clinical and translational impact.

Behind the Camera

“I’ve always been interested in [photography], but I never wanted to develop film and print because it was just like working in the lab,” he said. But when digital photography emerged, he decided to pick it up.

“There are certainly some connections to science,” he said. “Several features are similar between the retina and the [camera] sensors. And then there’s the creative aspect of photography – composition and the rule of thirds; it’s related to what the brain and the visual system like.”

His work, with subjects that range from landscapes to performance art, was recently featured on the cover of Journal of Neurophysiology.

“There’s a performance artist who does these amazing soap bubble displays,” he said of the journal cover. The artist, Richard Twist, whose work sometimes resembles physiological structures, was found by William Betz, the chair of physiology at Colorado, who was visiting the University of Washington for an endowed lecture.

“We had the artist doing [his work] and Bill enjoying himself, and I was taking photos. It was kind of fun to see that come together.”

Dr. Froehner has also begun taking photography trips, including a trip to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska last summer and Monument Valley and the Four Corners area of the Southwest this year. More frequently, he photographs performers at the Seattle jazz club Jazz Alley, which he visits with his wife, who has a passion for music.

“It’s great to listen to the music, and then I’ve got photos to sort through and put up on my website,” he said. “It’s a nice thing we do together.”

Venice. ©2011 Stan Froehner Photography
The Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. ©2011 Stan Froehner Photography