We Are Electric

From The Wall Street Journal:

The science writer Sally Adee begins “We Are Electric” in a bullish mood, arguing that it’s time for researchers to focus on the electrome—the “electrical dimensions and properties of cells, the tissues they collaborate to form, and the electrical forces that are turning out to be involved in every aspect of life.” Once the secrets of the electrome are unlocked, Ms. Adee claims, we “should all be programmable at the level of the cell.”

The story begins during the Enlightenment, with the dispute between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta over “animal electricity.” Ms. Adee takes us back to 1780, when Galvani set up a home laboratory complete with Leyden jars, electrostatic generators and a host of frogs cut into various grisly configurations. The author describes how a series of experiments with static electricity, lightning and brass hooks convinced Galvani that “the body is animated by a kind of electricity,” and how Volta—keen to “cement his reputation as a brilliant theorist”—attacked Galvani’s theory and buried it with a “world-changing instrument: the battery.” Despite Galvani’s elegant dissections, most electricians “didn’t care about a theory as long as it yielded a tool that helped them do better science,” Ms. Adee suggests. So when Volta demonstrated a device that for the first time produced a steady electric current, it was enough to win the argument, handing the field of electricity in living creatures over to quacks and charlatans for nearly a century.

The broad outlines of this tale, where bioelectrical pioneers struggle to gain recognition for their work but wind up “sidelined” by the scientific establishment, are repeated as Ms. Adee traces the study of bioelectricity over the next 250 years. The inventor of the electroencephalogram, Hans Berger, killed himself in 1941, in part over his despair at the ridicule he endured after introducing his machine in Germany in the 1920s. After Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley discovered in 1952 that neurons fire by swapping sodium and potassium ions, James Watson and Francis Crick “stole the show” with their discovery of DNA, leaving bioelectricity “sidelined by a ‘bigger’ discovery once again.” Despite an experiment that in 2007 helped a man with a crushed spine walk again, Richard Borgens’s innovative oscillating field stimulator, we are told, was “blocked at every turn.”

. . . .

Ms. Adee looks forward to a future in which implants are made of organic material and dispense ions instead of electrons, allowing them to speak to the body “in its own language.” But some studies have proved challenging to replicate, and she admits that treatments are “an extremely long way from your doctor’s consulting room.” Understanding the human electrome well enough that we can manipulate it precisely will require huge trials to establish how these technologies interact with our bioelectricity, Ms. Adee continues, which raises the question: “Who is going to let you open their brain to get that data?”

. . . .

Ms. Adee writes as a reporter, but also an enthusiast who “ended up buying a brain stimulator” herself. It was through her experience with one such wearable device at a U.S. military training facility—where her brain was electrically stimulated from outside her skull, turning her from a novice marksman into a sharpshooter within hours—that her interest in the field was sparked. For the next few days, she writes, “life was so much easier. Who knew you could just, like, do stuff without first performing the elaborate dance of psychological self-recrimination?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG wants a brain stimulator. He just searched for brain stimulator device and found lots of products on Amazon, including TENS muscle stimulators plus a lot of fishy-looking devices (including some that claimed to include “safety features”) that may or may not work the way the one described in the WSJ article seemed to.

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