From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Spark of Life
Electricity in the Human Body
by Frances Ashcroft
Frances Ashcroft's The Spark of Life should be required reading for those who hate reductionism in science. She has little quarrel with Percy Bysshe Shelley's characterization of man as "a mass of electrified clay." Her most productive work involved figuring out that some of those electrical processes involve proteins in cell walls that control the flow of ions that regulate insulin secretion. Thanks to work she did in the early 1980s, most children born with one form of diabetes can control it using an oral medication that affects those ion channels instead of having to spend the rest of their lives dependent on insulin injections.
It is understandable, given human ignorance and the propensity to superstition, to see the therapy that Ashcroft's work makes possible as a miracle. But, as she says, "this no miracle: it is merely science. It is knowledge of exactly how ion channels regulate the electrical activity of the pancreatic beta-cells, and thereby insulin secretion." Further understanding of the "mechanisms underlying the electrical activity of nerve and muscle cells" will make it possible for new therapies to be developed for various neurological problems.
We may be more than electrified clay, but if we want to understand what we are as physical beings and if we want to understand how to intervene in nature's calm and indifferent debilitations of our bodies, then we must study the basic processes that electrify our cells and organs. This includes our wonderful brain. Those who think in terms of miracles are likely to think in terms of souls when they think of consciousness, but Ashcroft is a firm materialist. Consciousness is a function of the brain, though we don't know exactly how. There is no soul or mind that exists independently of the body. And if you want to increase our understanding of Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson's, and dozens of other diseases; if you want to increase our understanding of how our various senses or memory works, and how we feel pleasure and pain; if you want to increase our understanding of how poisons or drugs work on our bodies, then you must study how basic electrical processes function in our bodies. Appeals to independent minds or souls will not help us better understand who we are.
Ashcroft's story is fascinating account of the history of electricity in and out of the body, of scientific research and discovery involving sodium pumps and potassium channels, of triumphs and failures. Having recently had open heart surgery, I was especially interested in her chapter on the heart. The complexity of how this single muscle works is mind boggling. The technological development over the past century of such devices as the EKG machine (ECG in Britain) is shocking: from a two-ton device to the portable machine I witnessed being used on me several times before and after my operation. She also discusses the development and use of defibrillators and pacemakers, including the story of how Earl Bakken came up with the first battery operated pacemaker by modifying a transistorized metronome that he'd read about in Popular Electronics magazine.
The brain*, the legs, the heart, the liver, the kidney, the pancreas....you name it in the human body and electricity is somehow involved in its health and disease. Ashcroft obviously loves her subject matter and her enthusiasm carried over to this reader.
If I were a student about to take my first course in physiology, I couldn't think of a better book to read first than The Spark of Life. If you love science and are curious about what makes your body work, then you should read this book.
*Chapter six of Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain--"The Believing Neuron"--is a nice complement to Ashcroft's chapters on the brain. The beauty of reductionism shines forth in the neuroscientific discoveries at the neuronal level. Also, Ashcroft and Shermer's exposition of the complex set of conditions at work at the cellular level can serve as an antidote to some of the goofier writings of alternative healers like Jon Barron. Barron speculates that "as cell voltage starts to drop into the range where the very survival of the cell may be called into question, the cell begins to proliferate uncontrollably in an attempt to guarantee its 'survival'." Barron also claims that his magical discovery of energizing things can be used to raise the voltage of cancer cells and stop their proliferation. If Barron were right about why cancer cells proliferate and how his energizer could stop cancer cells from multiplying, he would have his Nobel Prize and the medical community would be beating a path to his door. Cancer scientists don't think the voltage of cells is particularly important in determining why they turn cancerous or how they might be treated. The change in voltage is an effect of cancer, not a cause. The cellular mechanisms that affect the changes in voltages of cells are a key to understanding how our bodies work and malfunction. Those mechanisms are very complex and while you may evoke a feeling, memory, or hallucination by directly stimulating the brain with an electrical current, you will not eliminate cancer by directly increasing the voltage of cancer cells.
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