Book Review by Sapphire Ng
The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science
by R. Douglas Fields
Simon & Schuster
Copyright December 2009
Hardcover, 384 Pages
An unbelievably engrossing book on brain science, The Other Brain presents a scientific discourse predominantly focused on the glia, and aptly examined alongside the neuronal brain. The book is comprised of a delectable survey of scientifically intriguing information as related to the human brain and is perfectly accessible to the general reader. Effectively incorporating anecdotes and metaphors, the positioning of the material in the book is beyond engaging.
Granted the intimate and indispensable role our brains play in our lives, this book is a must read for any perspicacious member of the human race. Be warned though that one might require more than just scant interest in brain science or minimal desire for self-discovery to make it through the book.
Personally, am most astounded and fascinated by the examinations into the eclectic range of diseases related to the brain. It is surely jaw-dropping for example, to learn of mechanisms in a person’s central nervous system that could implicate life paralysis in the event of a spinal cord injury, of which it is also and surely no less captivating to learn of the existence of the phenomenon of cellular suicide as triggered by the injury.
The book includes riveting explorations of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS—where “only motor neurons are assassinated”—; demyelinating disorders such as multiple sclerosis that induce the loss of myelin; glia-implicating psychiatric illnesses encompassing schizophrenia and depression; and even a rather poignant case of Alexander disease as afflicting a young child who suffered from symptoms such as hydrocephalus, which is aptly elucidated in the book as “enlargement of the head due to fluid pressure buildup in the brain.”
The peculiar case of kuru is yet another disease presented in an incredibly gripping manner, with its enigmatic link with cannibalism and afflictions of “spongiform encephalopathy” where victims’ brains turned to “sponge.” Whilst again somewhat poignant to read about cases involving the condition of CIPA—congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis—which is marked by the death of pain neurons, or ominous brain cancers such as glioblastomas, the content remains perfectly positioned to educate the reader on the scientific specificities of the different diseases.
The reader can expect detailed examinations of glia alongside its “cellular sibling,” neurons, and should seize the opportunity to learn their fundamentals. For example, the four basic types of glial cells are astrocytes, Schwann cells, oligodendrocytes, and microglia; the 3 different forms of Schwann cells distinguished as nonmyelinating, terminal, or myelinating; the function of microglia as the brain’s “military,” and “exclusive guard;” or the differentiation between pre- and postsynaptic neurons, and the functioning and significance of neurons.
The book ventures further into discussions of for example, the blood-brain barrier, the extracellular brain space, the interrelationship between memory, learning and the brain, surgical procedures such as the prefrontal lobotomy—as a treatment for schizophrenia—, and impressively profound scientific tools including gene chips aiding in the process of monitoring “the activity of thousands of genes at once,” the diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) brain scan—a brain imaging technique that correlated IQ with white matter development—, calcium imaging, and miniaturization.
Beautifully interpolated into the text are inspiring and incredible scientific adventures and expert contributions of great scientists, electrophysiologists, neurobiologists, biophysicists, pain researchers and more. It is surely a pleasure to peruse the variety of ingenious scientific experiments as designed and conducted by these pundits doggedly dedicated to the continuous pursuit and attainment of scientific knowledge.
As for the effective use of metaphors in aiding the elucidation of concepts, an example include the illustrative comparison of “a pathological loss of myelinating glial cells” in forebrain tracts and the potentially resulting “psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and other mental impairments,” to the breakage of “insulation on critical communication cables” but with the heightened dire impact of a severed cable on the disruption of “communication” within the brain.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.