The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

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Overview

What happens during a heart attack? Can someone really die of fright? What is death, anyway? How does electroshock treatment affect the brain? What is consciousness? The answers to these questions lie in the electrical signals constantly traveling through our bodies, driving our thoughts, our movements, and even the beating of our hearts.

The history of how scientists discovered the role of electricity in the human body is a colorful one, filled with extraordinary personalities, fierce debates, and brilliant experiments. Moreover, present-day research on electricity and ion channels has created one of the most exciting fields in science, shedding light on conditions ranging from diabetes and allergies to cystic fibrosis, migraines, and male infertility. With inimitable wit and a clear, fresh voice, award-winning researcher Frances Ashcroft weaves together compelling real-life stories with the latest scientific findings, giving us a spectacular account of the body electric.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With style and enthusiasm, Oxford professor Ashcroft (Life at the Extremes) reveals the ubiquitous role electricity plays in our bodies. In the late 1700s, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani’s experiments with frogs showed that animals produced their own electricity. His nephew Giovanni Aldini conducted public demonstrations using the corpses of recently executed criminals that gave the appearance of “re-animation” and probably sparked Mary Shelley’s imagination when she created Frankenstein as well as the Victorian idea of the “mad scientist.” But scientists didn’t know how that electricity was produced in the body until the 1970s, when physicist Erwin Neher and physiologist Bert Sakmann measured the minuscule flow of current as potassium and sodium ions moved through tiny gates—ion channels—in a cell membrane. With this grounding, Ashcroft widens the story to explore everything from how different nerve agents, like puffer fish venom, curare, and botox, work, to how electric eels generate electricity, how defibrillators stabilize the heart’s rhythms, and how our brains interpret sensory data. Ashcroft’s writing is clear and accessible, offering surprising insights into the “electrical machine” we call the human body. 50 illus. Agent: Felicity Bryan, Felicity Bryan Literary Agency. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Most people learn in school that nerves control our muscles, senses, and brain, but many adults would struggle to explain exactly how this occurs. Physiologist Ashcroft (Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Research Professor, Oxford Univ.; Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival) writes an engaging and authoritative guide to how nerves communicate across gaps called synapses, and so make life possible. Ashcroft introduces her readers to the discovery of the effects of electricity on biological organisms, including the work of Benjamin Franklin and Luigi Galvani as well as colorful quacks with fancy gadgets, epitomized by the fictional Doctor Frankenstein. She also describes the consequences of deadly nerve poisons (e.g., curare) as well as natural defects in the body's electrical system (e.g., heart arrhythmias, epilepsy, and migraines). Electricity, she assures her readers, also leads to lifesaving devices such as pacemakers and probes for deep-brain electrical stimulation that help reduce tremors and severe depression. VERDICT Ashcroft clearly and patiently introduces complicated science while enlivening her narrative with fascinating tales of electric eels, fugu fish poisoning, and fainting goats. Serious readers will be both challenged and entertained.—Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL
Kirkus Reviews
From taking a breath to running a marathon to retrieving memories, the human body is powered by electricity--but how does it work, and how can understanding its effects assist innovations in physiology? In every organism on earth, electrical activity is regulated by proteins called ion channels. Ashcroft (Physiology/Univ. of Oxford; Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival, 2000, etc.) argues that ion channels "are truly the 'spark of life' for they govern every aspect of our behavior." The author's research led to innovative new treatments when she discovered that ion channel mutations can cause diabetes. Everything from inception (ion channels play a role in successful egg fertilization) to death (which is a cessation of electrical pulses between nerve cells) is affected by animal electricity, including all five senses. Thinking and dreaming, too, are powered by electric nerve impulses, suggesting intriguing connections between human emotions and memories and their underlying electrochemical processes. Ashcroft explores all of this with clarity and enthusiasm, citing ample research-based evidence to give readers an understanding of cutting-edge scientific research while also incorporating the vibrant history of the discovery of animal electricity. Informative and relatable real-life anecdotes tie many of these scientific concepts together and provide tantalizing hints of what new applications of electricity may be on the horizon. Brain-powered Internet, electric sight and even mind-reading may be possible. A captivating read sure to pique the interest of any science fan.
Bill Bryson
“This is a wonderful book. Frances Ashcroft has a rare gift for making difficult subjects accessible and fascinating.”
Engineering and Technology - Nick Smith
“An extraordinary fusion of culture and cutting-edge science.”
Booklist - Tony Miksanek
“Starred review. The human body is a symphony of complicated chemical and electrical signals. Let Ashcroft’s book serve as your program guide.”
Nick Smith - Engineering and Technology
“An extraordinary fusion of culture and cutting-edge science.”
Tony Miksanek - Booklist
“Starred review. The human body is a symphony of complicated chemical and electrical signals. Let Ashcroft’s book serve as your program guide.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393078039
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/24/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 382,572
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Ashcroft is a professor of physiology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Royal Society. The author of the international bestseller Life at the Extremes, she lives in Oxford.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: I Sing the Body Electric 1

1 The Age of Wonder 8

2 Molecular Pores 33

3 Acting on Impulse 54

4 Mind the Gap 80

5 Muscling in on the Action 102

6 Les Poissons Trembleurs 117

7 The Heart of the Matter 140

8 Life and Death 170

9 The Doors of Perception 192

10 All Wired Up 226

11 Mind Matters 256

12 Shocking Treatment 285

Notes 312

Further Reading 317

Acknowledgements 320

Credits 322

Index 323

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2012

    "Sparks" with illumination!

    What an enjoyable read! I heard Ms. Ashcroft being interviewed on NPR and bought her book as soon thereafter as possible. She brings life to the subject of life. I am 64 and as a teenager and young adult played in several loud rock and roll bands. I now have a very minor case of tinnitus, but no discernable hearing loss. I was reading her section on the auditory nerves in our smoking room that contains an air filter and fan to blow smoke out the window. The air filter was shrieking as I read how many of us will grow deaf from the constant bombardment of high decibel noise around us. I immediately put down the book and cleaned the air filter to quiet it.

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