Ever wondered what your brain looks like? Or cancer cells? Or even what makes your coffee give you that caffeine hit?

Well now the winners of the 2012 Wellcome Image Awards, announced this week, can show you.

The winning shot was that of a living human brain, taken by Robert Ludlow during surgery. The brain belongs to a patient with epilepsy, and the judges commended the fact that the photograph offered a rare glimpse inside the human skull.

wellcome image awards 2012 Caffeine crystals captured by Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy


Challenged to take pictures that let viewers 'get closer to science', the nominated photographers open up the microscopic worlds of plant, animal and mineral beyond recognition.

The award shows how beautifully art, science and medicine can collide as the academic subject matter of the photographs is as important as how it looks.

As Catherine Draycott, Head of Wellcome Images said, "the winners are chosen for their scientific and technical merit as much as for their aesthetic appeal. They offer people a chance to [see science and research] as a source of beauty as well as providing important information about the world around us."

If the images look like they're from another planet, it might be because of the incredible technical skill involved in taking them.

Medical photography is notoriously difficult process, as photographers have to work in conditions where doctors are working and under difficult lighting situations.

We can't decide where some of these images lie on the line between fascinating and stomach-churning - what do you think?

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  • Intracranial recording for epilepsy

    ROBERT LUDLOW, UCL INSTITUTE OF NEUROLOGY, LONDON: This photograph shows the surface (cortex) of a human brain belonging to an epileptic patient. The image displays the bright red arteries that supply the brain with nutrients and oxygen and the purple veins that remove deoxygenated blood. This photograph was taken before an intracranial electrode recording procedure for epilepsy, in which electrical activity is measured from the exposed surface of the brain.

  • Connective tissue

    ANNE WESTON, LONDON RESEARCH INSTITUTE, CANCER RESEARCH UK: This false-coloured scanning electron micrograph shows connective tissue removed from a human knee during arthroscopic surgery. Individual fibres of collagen can be distinguished and have been highlighted by the creator using a variety of colours. The horizontal field width of the image is 16 microns.

  • Desmid algae (Micrasterias denticulata)

    SPIKE WALKER: This photomicrograph shows Micrasterias, a type of green alga called a desmid. Desmids usually inhabit the acidic waters associated with sphagnum (peat) bogs. These particular desmids are flat, plate-like single cells made up of two halves (semicells), which are mirror images of each other with highly ornamented edges. The horizontal image field measures 150 microns.

  • Microneedle vaccine

    PETER DEMUTH: This scanning electron micrograph shows an array of 'microneedles' made from a biodegradable polymer. Researchers have shown these materials can be used to deliver vaccines and therapeutics to the outer layers of the skin in a safe and painless way. Each microneedle is approximately 700 microns high and 250 microns wide at the base and can be applied to the skin as a one centimetre-squared patch.

  • Loperamide crystals

    ANNIE CAVANAGH AND DAVID MCCARTHY: This false-coloured scanning electron micrograph shows loperamide crystals. Loperamide, an antimotility drug used to treat diarrhoea, works by slowing down the movement of the intestine and reducing the speed at which the contents of the gut pass through. Food remains in the intestines for longer and water can be more effectively absorbed back into the body. This results in firmer stools that are passed less often. The crystal group measures approximately 250 microns across.

  • Bacteria biofilm

    FERNAN FEDERICI, TIM RUDGE, PJ STEINER AND JIM HASELOFF: This confocal micrograph, taken as part of a synthetic biology project, shows Bacillus subtilis, a Gram-positive, rod-shaped bacterium that is commonly found in soil. Distinct lineages of bacteria expressing different fluorescent proteins were initially mixed randomly on a petri dish. As the bacteria grow, they organise themselves into reproducible patterns and shapes that can be predicted with mathematical models. The horizontal field width of this image is 500 microns.

  • Repair of ventricular septal defect

    HENRY DE'ATH, ROYAL LONDON HOSPITAL: This photograph shows the repair of a traumatic ventricular septal defect (VSD). A VSD is a hole between the right and left ventricles of the heart, and is usually seen as a congenital condition, known as a 'hole in the heart'. This picture was taken in theatre to document the unusual injury and its subsequent repair.

  • Diatom frustule

    ANNE WESTON, LONDON RESEARCH INSTITUTE, CANCER RESEARCH UK: This false-coloured scanning electron micrograph shows a diatom frustule. Diatoms are unicellular organisms and a major group of algae. Diatoms are encased within a hard cell wall made from silica. Frustules have a variety of patterns, pores, spines and ridges, which are used to determine genera and species. Diatoms are one of the most common types of phytoplankton, and their communities are often used to measure environmental conditions such as water quality. This diatom is approximately 80 microns in diameter.

  • Moth fly (Psychodidae)

    KEVIN MACKENZIE, UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN: This false-coloured scanning electron micrograph shows a moth fly (Psychodidae), also known as a drain fly. As its name suggests, the fly's larvae commonly live and grow in domestic drains; the adult fly emerges near sinks, baths and lavatories. The moth flies' bodies and wings are covered in hairs, which gives them a 'fuzzy', moth-like appearance. The fly is 4-5 mm long, and each eye is approximately 100 microns wide.

  • Cancer cells in motion

    SALIL DESAI, SANGEETA BHATIA, MEHMET TONER AND DANIEL IRIMIA, KOCH INSTITUTE FOR INTEGRATIVE CANCER RESEARCH, MIT: This image depicts the chemotactic behaviour of cancer cells using a combination of fluorescence and phase contrast microscopy. Chemotaxis, or the directed motion of cells in the presence of a small-molecule gradient, is essential in the spread of cancer from one area of the body to another. This process is known as the metastatic cascade. The individual channels are 12 microns wide, approximately one-tenth the width of a single human hair.

  • Chicken embryo vascular system

    VINCENT PASQUE, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE: This fluorescence micrograph shows the vascular system of a developing chicken embryo (Gallus gallus), two days after fertilisation. Injecting fluorescent dextran revealed the entire vasculature used by the embryo to feed itself from the rich underlying yolk inside the egg. At this stage of development, the embryo and its surrounding vasculature are a little smaller than a 5p coin.

  • Caffeine crystals

    ANNIE CAVANAGH AND DAVID MCCARTHY: This false-coloured scanning electron micrograph shows caffeine crystals. Caffeine is a bitter, crystalline xanthine alkaloid that acts as a stimulant drug. In plants, caffeine functions as a defence mechanism. Found in varying quantities in the seeds, leaves and fruit of some plants, caffeine acts as a natural pesticide that paralyses and kills certain insects feeding on the plant. The main crystals of caffeine were 400-500 microns long; however, this crystal group formed on the end of the larger crystal and measures around 40 microns in length.

  • Arabidopsis thaliana seedling

    FERNAN FEDERICI AND JIM HASELOFF: This confocal micrograph shows the tissue structures within the leaf of an Arabidopsis thaliana seedling. The sample was fixed and stained with propidium iodide, which labels DNA, but was imaged four years later. Over time, oxidation of the stain in different parts of the tissue provides differential fluorescent properties that can be excited with distinct wavelengths of light from a confocal microscope. The researchers are using these techniques to investigate cellular architecture in plants and gene activity. The horizontal field width of this image is 200 microns.

  • Cell division

    KUAN-CHUNG SU AND MARK PETRONCZKI, LONDON RESEARCH INSTITUTE, CANCER RESEARCH UK: This composite confocal micrograph uses time-lapse microscopy to show a cancer cell (HeLa) undergoing cell division (mitosis). The DNA is shown in red, and the cell membrane is shown in cyan. The round cell in the centre has a diameter of 20 microns.

  • Xenopus laevis oocytes

    VINCENT PASQUE, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE: This confocal micrograph shows stage V-VI oocytes (800-1000 micron diameter) of an African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), a model organism used in cell and developmental biology research. Each oocyte is surrounded by thousands of follicle cells, shown in the image by staining DNA blue. Blood vessels, which provide oxygen to the oocyte and follicle cells, are shown in red. The ovary of each adult female Xenopus laevis contains up to 20 000 oocytes. Mature oocytes are approximately 1.2 mm in diameter, much larger than the eggs of many other species.

  • Lavender leaf

    ANNIE CAVANAGH AND DAVID MCCARTHY: This false-coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) shows a lavender leaf (Lavandula) imaged at 200 microns. Lavender, which is native to the Mediterranean region, is an evergreen shrub that grows to about three feet high and has small blue or purple flowers and narrow grey leaves. Lavender yields an essential oil with sweet overtones, which can be used in balms, salves, perfumes, cosmetics and topical applications. It is also used to aid sleep, to relax and to alleviate anxiety.