3d illustration of transmitting synapse,neuron or nerve cell

Book review: ‘We Are Electric’ by Sally Adee

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A stylish recounting of the story of bioelectricity, its dramatic history and thrilling possibilities.

Electricity is at the heart of how we are formed, how our brains speak to our bodies, how we heal after injuries, how we think, move, feel. In ‘We Are Electric: The New Science of our Body’s Electrome' (Canongate Books, £20, ISBN 9781838853327), Sally Adee explores the discovery of ‘galvanism’, the confusing steps towards understanding bioelectricity since then, and the incredible applications under development today.

The history of bioelectricity makes for a compelling yarn. It involves larger-than-life characters, a disagreement between two men which spawned an epic war between the physical and life sciences, shocking experiments conducted in public, yet more shocking experiments conducted in private, more ‘faecal explosions’ than might reasonably be expected, and many unfortunate frogs.

Bioelectricity has long been associated with quacks offering electrical treatments for everything from diarrhoea to, er, homosexuality. The shadow of ‘electroquackery’ continues to loom over the field, with today’s experts hyper-cautious about extraordinary claims being made around, for instance, the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation. So fantastic is the promise of bioelectricity, however, that these claims cannot be automatically dismissed. Learning to harness bioelectricity might have the potential to slow ageing, ‘switch off’ cancer, regenerate cells, and restore lost function in people with spinal cord injuries.

Adee is a reassuring guide through this complex and controversial subject. Her technical explanations are exemplary, rendering biological processes comprehensible to those almost entirely uninitiated with the life sciences. In one early passage, Adee explains that the electric field generated by the migration of ions within the body works out to a million volts per metre, comparable to a lightning bolt passing from one hand to the other: “That’s what it feels like to be every neuron in your body, every moment of your life.”

Despite bioelectricity being fundamental to every aspect of our existence, one is left with a sense from ‘We Are Electric’ that we remain largely in the Dark Ages when it comes to our understanding (let alone use) of bioelectricity. One cannot help but imagine ourselves akin to 12th century peasants who have stumbled upon a computer in a field which we cannot comprehend – although perhaps we can comprehend its significance. Recent research in bioelectricity has produced some bizarre results, which hint at the potential to unlock abilities that one would struggle to avoid describing as god-like.

For instance, electrical features appear to ‘encode’ the location of anatomical features in embryos; a scientist studying this commented: “You can put eyes pretty much anywhere on a frog by changing the membrane voltage,” and proceeded to do so. Deep-brain stimulation, too, has produced extreme and inexplicable effects; our experiments with it so far are comparable to trying to play a piano with a mallet.

It is astonishing that ‘We Are Electric’ is the first popular science book on this subject; it taps into the magic of science that we are only on the brink of understanding. A book which does its fascinating subject justice: elegant, exciting and expertly written.

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