We are electric
Hachette Books, $30
It only took a 9-volt battery and a zapping brain to turn science writer Sally Adee into a rock star.
He flew to California to test an experimental DARPA technology that used electric jolts to train military snipers for speed. When the juice was flowing, Adee could tell. A desert simulation that pitted against the virtual bad guys, hit everyone.
“Getting my neurons slapped around with an electric field instantly sharpens my ability to focus,” Adee writes in his new book; We are electric. That brain-stimulating experience ignited her 10-year research to understand how electricity and biology intertwine. And it’s not just neurons talking.
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Bioelectricity, Adee makes the case, is a terribly underexplored area of science that touches all parts of the body. His story is one of deception, scientific thread exposed and abandoned, tantalizing and claims, “electroquacks” and proven medical devices and frogs. oh so many frogs
It takes us back to the 18th century lab of Luigi Galvani, an Italian scientist, hunting for the spark of life in animals. His gruesome experiments on twitching frog legs provided evidence that animal bodies could generate their own electricity, an idea that was widely debated at the time. (So many experiments Galvani’s scientists repeated, in fact, Europe began to run out of frogs).
But around the same time Galvani’s critic Alessandro Volta, another Italian physicist, invented the electric machine. It was a type of strangulation, a historical device that stole the arc from the animal’s electricity, and field chickens were strangled. “So it is set,” writes Adee. “Electricity was not for biology. Machines, telegraphs, and chemical reactions.
It took decades for scientists to pick up Galvani’s experimental wires and get the study of bioelectricity on track. Since then we have learned just how much electricity orchestrates our lives, and how much more remains to be discovered. Electricity zips through our neurons, makes our hearts tick and flows through every cell of the body. We have run out of 40 trillion tiny rechargeable batteries, Adee writes.
It tells how cells use ion channels to bring charged molecules in and out. One thing readers shouldn’t expect from a book that illustrates the intricacies of canals: It’s surprisingly funny.
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Chloride ions, for example, are “permanently low-key” because they carry a -1 charge. Bogus medical contraptions (here’s looking at you, electric penis belts) were “electro-foolity.” In his acknowledgments, Adee jokes about “the living power of Voltron” and thanks people for tolerating the jolts of caffeine. That energy thrums through the book, commanding her storytelling like a staticky balloon.
Adee is especially electrifying in the chapter on spinal cord regeneration and why the initial experiments should stop. A decade ago, scientists tried to soothe severed nerves by applying an electric field again. The controversial technique has sparked scientific drama, but the idea of using electricity to heal may be ahead of its time. Fast forward to 2020, and DARPA has awarded $16 million to researchers on a similar concept: a bioelectric bracelet that speeds healing.
Along with a zingy Band-Aid about the future, Adee describes other sci-fi ideas in the works. One day, for example, surgeons may sprinkle your brain with neurograins, neural ribbons or neural dust, tiny electronic implants that can help scientists monitor brain activity or even help people control robotic arms or other machines.SN: 9/3/16, p. 10).
Such implants pose many challenges — like how to marry electronics to living tissue — but Adee’s book leaves readers with a sense of excitement. Not only could bioelectricity inspire new and improved medical devices, it could also reveal the importance of unexpected truths about the body.
As Adee writes: “We are electrical machines whose full dimensions we have not yet dreamed of.”
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