by Brian B. Hoffman

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Famous as the catalyst of the fight or flight response, adrenaline has also received forensic attention as a perfect, untraceable poison—and rumors persist of its power to revive the dead. True to the spirit of its topic, Adrenaline is a stimulating journey that reveals the truth behind adrenaline’s scientific importance and popular appeal.


Famous as the catalyst of the fight or flight response, adrenaline has also received forensic attention as a perfect, untraceable poison—and rumors persist of its power to revive the dead. True to the spirit of its topic, Adrenaline is a stimulating journey that reveals the truth behind adrenaline’s scientific importance and popular appeal.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It can save or extinguish a life, and it’s as relevant in the office and gym as it is in the emergency room. But Hoffman, a Harvard professor of medicine, insists that adrenaline—whose powerful fight-or-flight effect puts the heart into overdrive, opens the lungs to airflow, and stimulates the liver to flood the bloodstream with glucose—has a storied past that also sheds light on “the history of scientific ideas and medical progress,” biomedical entrepreneurship, and the thrill of risky behavior. His “biography of adrenaline” is medical history at its best, revealing the blend of genius, guts, and luck that transformed a hunch into a breakthrough—from 19th-century physician Thomas Addison’s insights into the function of the adrenal glands to the beginnings of endocrinology (and the surprising use of hundreds of sheep thyroids to cure a human patient), the heartbreaking Nobel Prize snub of a canny Japanese scientist and biotechnology pioneer, and the myriad other drugs developed after the discovery of adrenaline. Hoffman notes that there’s still much to know about the relationship between the body and brain when it comes to triggering emotions, but in the meantime, this thoughtful and exuberant exploration will satisfy both professional and lay readers. 5 halftones, 2 line illus. (Apr.)
Edmond H. Fischer
The most complete and detailed book ever written on Adrenaline. Hoffman presents a fascinating account of the history-from the earliest days of its discovery to its most recent clinical and therapeutic developments.
Alfred G. Gilman
Adrenaline has long captured the attention of all flavors of physicians, biologists, and storytellers. Now, happily, Brian Hoffman has captured the complete 'biography of adrenaline' in substantial detail. The story and science are delivered with just enough--but not too much--technical detail, and numerous vignettes make it a very human read.
Carla C. Keirns
Hoffman has done a beautiful job of integrating the story of scientific discovery with commercial application, demonstrating the ways in which this is truly a circular process with both discovery and application happening in both industry and academia, rather than the way it is often viewed as a simple matter of companies 'scaling up' discoveries in university laboratories.
Scientific American - Marissa Fessenden
The first hormone ever discovered, adrenaline is associated with terror, stress and excitement and is behind animals' fight-or-flight response. Hoffman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, explores the cultural significance of adrenaline and its history. The stories include those of a murderous nurse who used the untraceable hormone to induce fatal heart attacks in her patients, industrial chemists' race to purify adrenaline for drug use and the myth of the chemical's power to raise the dead.
Wall Street Journal - William Bynum
As Hoffman beautifully demonstrates, adrenaline is part of a whole host of fundamental physiological processes besides fight or flight. It influences our emotions and is part of the cycle of sugar metabolism and our daily circadian rhythms.
Wilson Quarterly - Hannah Holmes
[An] illuminating study of science history.
London Review of Books - Gavin Francis
Hoffman's book offers a straight history of adrenaline's discovery, purification and the research that has been carried out into how it works.
Times Literary Supplement - Nicola K. S. Davis
Hoffman brings to life many of the characters that feature in the discovery of adrenaline and the development of related drugs from pioneering scientists to the numerous individuals who would have slipped into anonymity had it not been for an eye-opening medical conundrum.
Library Journal
Hoffman (medicine, Harvard Medical Sch.) has written a study of adrenaline for nonscientists. In doing so he addresses the evolution of medical experimentation and biomedical ethics as well as the history of medicine and science as a whole. The chemical commonly known for its "fight or flight" effects was the first hormone to be identified. The story of its discovery, identification, and purification is intriguing, involving scientific rivalry and questions of the roles of academia and private enterprise in medical breakthroughs. Owing to these political machinations, the Nobel Prize for the discovery of adrenaline was awarded to the wrong person. Hoffman includes a chapter on the adrenaline-mimicking autonomic nervous system and neurotransmitters, and a final chapter on adrenaline in popular culture, where it is often used as "a metaphor of a force that can bring anything back to life." VERDICT Although the book targets lay readers, it is best suited for those with previous knowledge of human biology or physiology. It will be of definite interest to students of biology, chemistry, and the health sciences, or anyone interested in the history of medicine and medical research.—Rachel Owens, Daytona State Coll. Lib., FL

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Harvard University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6: Mind the Gap: Chemical Transmission from Sympathetic Nerves to Organs

Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.

Alfred North Whitehead

When compared injections of adrenaline, activation of sympathetic nerves has many similar actions on organs throughout the body. The dazzling explanation for their comparable effects emerged only after much hard work. The solution had broad implications for understanding the inner workings of the nervous system and for the invention of powerful drugs. Solving how the companion parasympathetic nerves activated target organs posed an analogous challenge. The resolution of both questions involved the astonishing demonstration that sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve endings release chemicals called neurotransmitters that move across the narrow gap from nerve endings to cells in target organs. Since the stories leading to the identification of these neurotransmitters are intertwined in concept, time, place, and people, they will be discussed together. These accounts emphasize the lives and contributions of very prominent scientists involved in this research, especially Henry Dale, Otto Loewi, US von Euler, and Julius Axelrod.

The Concept of Chemical Neurotransmission

John Langley (1852–1925) made great progress in understanding the physiology of the autonomic nervous system over a 50-year career at Cambridge University in England. He divided the autonomic nervous system into two components termed the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal cord largely in the chest (thoracic) whereas the parasympathetic nerves originate either in the brainstem in the head (cranial nerves) or in the low back (sacral region). In many cases, the effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems oppose each other in regulating organ function. An advantage of opposing systems is that in urgent situations, needed changes in organ function can be implemented very quickly; for example, in the case of a requirement for a rapid increase in heart rate, the accelerator of heart beat (sympathetic nerve) can be pushed harder as the decelerator of the rate (parasympathetic nerve) is simultaneously turned off.

Langley developed a schematic representation of the autonomic nervous system that described two key neurons. The first neuron—named the preganglionic neuron—is heavily regulated by signals from the brain. The preganglionic neuron sends signals that are received by postganglionic neuron in structures called ganglions; the postganglionic neurons then relay the signals from the ganglion to target organs. The brain uses the autonomic nervous system to regulate many functions that are outside of conscious control.

In 1899, Max Lewandowski (1876–1918) demonstrated that responses in the eyes were very similar when he compared intravenous injections of adrenal extracts with stimulating the sympathetic nerves going to the eye. In 1901, Langley confirmed and extended Lewandowski’s results; Langley demonstrated that the effects of adrenal extracts persisted even after the sympathetic nerves to the eye had been destroyed, strongly suggesting that the active substance in the extracts acted directly on the eyes.

Meet the Author

Brian B. Hoffman is Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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