The Other Brain

Title: The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: December 29, 2009
ISBN13: 978-0743291422
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Despite everything that has been written about the brain, a very important part of this vital organ has been overlooked in most books – until now. The Other Brain is the story of glia, which make up approximately 85% of the cells in the brain. Long neglected as little more than cerebral packing material (“glia” means glue), glia are sparking a revolution in brain science.

Glia are completely different from neurons, the brain cells that we are familiar with. Scientists are discovering that glia have their own communication network, which operates in parallel to the more familiar communication among neurons. Glia provide the electrical insulation for neurons, and glia even regulate the flow of information between neurons.

But it is the potential breakthroughs for medical science that are the most exciting frontier in glia research today. Diseases such as brain cancer and multiple sclerosis are caused by diseased glia. Glia are now believed to play an important role in such psychiatric illnesses as schizophrenia and depression, and in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They are linked to infectious diseases such as HIV and prion disease (mad cow disease, for example) and to chronic pain. Scientists have discovered that glia repair the brain and spinal cord after injury and stroke. The more we learn about these cells that make up the “other” brain, the more important they seem to be.

Written by a neuroscientist who is a leader in the research to reveal the secrets of these brain cells, The Other Brain offers a first-hand account of science in action. It takes us into the laboratories where important discoveries are being made, and it explains how scientists are learning that glia cells come in different types, with different capabilities. It tells the story of glia research from its origins to the most recent discoveries and gives readers a much more complete understanding of how the brain works and where the next breakthroughs in brain science and medicine are likely to come.


The Other Brain offers an insightful, complex, and nuanced picture of the most interesting substance on earth: the matter inside our heads."
—Anthony Doerr, The Boston Globe, author of All the Light We Cannot See

"A brilliant, indispensable guide to the brave new frontier of brain science. With a storyteller's heart and a scientist's keen eye, Douglas Fields serves as our neural Jacques Cousteau, roving the depths of this thrilling realm to bring home vital truths about today and tomorrow. Buy this book--your brain will thank you for it."
—Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code

“With lucid prose…. Fields makes a convincing case that understanding this ‘other brain’ opens the door to dazzling possibilities.”
—Kirkus Reviews

A compelling, entertaining and information rich narrative that explains why the brain’s glial cells - traditionally considered mere ‘packing materials’ separating nerve cells - may be living a secret life of their own. Fields persuasively argues that this ‘other brain’ may hold the key to curing brain diseases such as multiple sclerosis, migraine and stroke, as well as enhancing our understanding of the mind.”
—Richard Restak, M.D., author of the bestselling Mozart’s BrainThe Fighter Pilot and Think Smart

“In 16 absorbing and accessible chapters, Fields gives life to a potentially dry medical topic by eavesdropping on the work of other neuroscientists, past and present, and shows how penetrating glia secrets offers hope for breakthroughs in healing Alzheimer’s, brain tumors, and even spinal cord injuries. Highly recommended, especially to science lovers…”
—Carl Hays, Booklist Review

“Fields tells a great story about not only how our brains work but also the labor of discovery. He will provoke his readers to rethink what they know about their brains, whether how the brain communicates, develops, degenerates, heals, ages, remembers, or thinks. Like Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself, this volume will spellbind lay readers and academics interested in the latest discoveries in neuroscience."
—Scott Vieira, Library Journal

“It takes a passionate person to make a subject like the brain interesting to lay people. But Dr. R. Douglas Fields is one passionate guy when it comes to the intricate workings of the human brain and how its miraculous and mysterious makeup could be the answer to many mental and physical diseases... Fascinating reading for anyone who has experienced brain-related disease or injury or for anyone just interested in how that lump above our shoulders actually works."
—Sharon Galligar, Las Vegas-Review Journal

“As R. Douglas Fields explains in The Other Brain, we are on the cusp of a radically new conception of how our minds work... The Other Brain offers a fresh description of our minds and a new view of how we think."
—Recommended Reading Scientific American Book Club

“Fields’ narrative brings readers into the lab, to peer over scientists’ shoulders as they navigate the cellscape with confocal microscopes and electron beams. Filled with flashes of scientific insight, this enlightening account turns the spotlight on the overlooked “other” brain cells.”
—Books to Read Now, Seed Magazine

“Tackling 300-plus pages about glia may sound like a daunting task, but Fields makes the experience an adventure. The Other Brain reads almost like a mystery: readers start by thinking of glia as witnesses to the various happenings of the brain but then slowly come to realize, through Fields’s colorful anecdotes and descriptions, that they are actually the brain’s primary movers and shakers.”
Melinda Wenner, Scientific American Mind

“As it introduces lay readers to exciting developments in neuroscience, The Other Brain also illuminates the challenges that science and scientists face in challenging prevailing beliefs. "
—John Strawn, The Oregonian 

“The Other Brain is written for laypeople and scientists alike. It describes Dr. Field's and others research and findings. In addition, it is full of interesting anecdotes, such as the fact that Albert Einstein's brain, exhibiting no difference between average brains in regards to neurons, had almost double the amount of glial cells as a normal brain."
—Sophia Cedola, Breakthrough, Tufts University

“The Other Brain... has opened the door to the so far underappreciated, but thrilling and constantly expanding, neuroscience field of glial cell function.

Giving a first-hand, behind-the-scenes view, Fields takes his readers from historical places and famous laboratories to his own bench, never forgetting that he may not be talking to the expert colleague but rather to the wider scientific community. Thus, this book is clearly written for a broad readership, from the glial cell researcher to the medically interested scientist....

After having thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I believe that most of its readers will find the scientific enthusiasm with which Fields has written his book highly contagious.”
—Michael T. Heneka The Journal of Clinical Investigation

Audio Excerpt


Glia Communicating by Calcium Waves


How do the 100 billion neurons in our brain allow us to remember who we are; to learn, think, and dream; to be stirred by passion or rage; to ride a bike or conjure meaning from inked patterns on paper; or to pluck out instantly a mother’s voice from the muddle of a noisy crowd? What goes wrong with neural circuits in schizophrenia or depression, or in dreadful diseases like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, or paralysis?

We are on the cusp of a new understanding of the brain that transforms a century of conventional thinking about the brain, specifically the role of the brain’s neurons. Crowding around the computer screen in a darkened room in 1990, scientists watched information passing through peculiar brain cells, bypassing neurons and communicating without using electrical impulses. Until this discovery scientists had presumed that information in the brain flowed only through neurons by using electricity. In fact, a mere 15 percent of the cells in our brain are neurons. The rest of our brain cells--called glia--have been overlooked as little more than packing material stuffed between the electric neurons. “Housekeeping cells” they were called. Dismissed as cellular domestic servants, glia were neglected for more than a century after they were discovered.

Now scientists are shocked to learn that these odd brain cells communicate among themselves. Scientists’ understanding of the brain has been shaken to its foundation by the discovery that these cells not only sense electrical activity flowing through neural circuits--they can control it.

How did scientists miss half the brain until now? Glia do not fire electrical impulses, and so the probing electrodes neuroscientists uses to monitor neurons were deaf to glial transmissions. Glia are not connected through synapses into circuits the way neurons are. Rather than passing messages sequentially like a falling line of dominos, glia broadcast their messages broadly throughout the brain.

How will this new discovery change our understanding of the mind? Will the mysteries of how the mind fails in mental illness or disease be solved as we explore this new dimension of the brain? Will the search uncover answers to how the brain can be repaired after disease or injury?

The discovery of glia--the other brain--is a dawning that illuminates every aspect of brain science, touching simultaneously all researchers working on the brain. This is a story of science in action, with twists and turns, insight and confusion, controversy and consensus. Along the way you will meet some fascinating scientists who are real people, each one different and sometimes peculiar, but each engaged in the most collaborative of all human activities--science.

The information here is so new it has not yet found its way into textbooks. This information will change your understanding of the brain. It will also provide you essential knowledge that will benefit you or your loved ones in your own heath. The book is packed with the latest information on neuroscience and medicine, and it brings you inside for an eyewitness view through the eyes of one of the researchers involved.

Einstein’s Brain
With a final slice he dropped the scalpel into the stainless steel tray, and reaching into the open skull with both hands, he carefully scooped out the brain. Cradling a human brain in his hands always releases a torrent of thoughts and emotions over mortality, individuality, biology, spirituality, and the mystery of one’s own place in the world. Only hours before, everything that was this unique human being had been embodied in these three pounds of convoluted tissue. Although the pathologist had felt these emotions countless times before, this time was different. The corpse laid out on the stainless steel table before him was Albert Einstein, and in his hands he held Einstein’s brain.

Scrutinizing the brain under the bright examination lights he stared with profound wonder at how this brain, slumping under its own weigh like Jell-O and looking identical to any other human brain, could have created one of the most extraordinary minds of the last century. Suddenly, Dr. Thomas Harvey saw in this brain his own destiny and purpose. It was meant for him.

Rinsing blood from the brain carefully in saline solution, he weight and measured it and then placed it in a freshly made 10 percent solution of formaldehyde, the toxic fumes stinging his nose and eyes. When this great man’s body was laid to rest, his phenomenal brain lay sunken in a jar of preservative, like a curious museum specimen, hidden away for the next forty years by a pathologist who felt an overwhelming compulsion to keep it for himself. It was an unethical and illegal desecration, but Harvey felt it was his fate and duty to science and humanity to unlock the secrets that had enabled this brain to give birth to such an extraordinary scientific mind.

The task was far beyond the ability of this pathologist, who saw his role as guardian of this priceless scientific treasure. Over the next four decades, Harvey doled out small slices of Einstein’s brain to scientists and pseudoscientists around the world to probe in different ways for clues to Einstein’s genius.

Here was a mind so extraordinary it conceived thoughts beyond the ability of any other mind to imagine, and beyond the capacity of many minds to understand even after the theory of relativity was fully formulated and articulated to them. A mind that could conceive the idea that time itself was flexible. Time and space, matter and energy lost their identity and freely morphed from one to the other, and time contracted or dilated to frame events fluidly. And to reach that revelation through no other mans than the power of thought--a mind imagining itself riding a beam of light.

Thirty years after Einstein’s brain was stolen, four pieces of it reached a distinguished neuroanatomist at the University of California, Berkeley. She now held in her hands vials containing four bits of tissue selected from carefully chosen regions of Einstein’s cerebral cortex. Dr. Marian Diamond reasoned that since Einstein’s’ genius related to extraordinary abilities of imagination, abstraction, and higher-level cogitative function, any physical basis for Einstein’s genius would be found in . . .