BOOK REVIEW: The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs

Rob DeSalle, Ian Tattersall, Patricia J. Wynne (Illustrator).

Yale University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0300175226

This is an ambitious book.  The brain is probably one of biology’s “ultimate frontiers” and one of the most interesting topics to think about.  Given the scope of what the authors tried to achieve, this is a pretty good book!  The authors are recognized experts in the fields of genetics and anthropology, and both are prolific authors of specialized scientific articles as well as popular science works.  Dr. Tattersal alone has published 3 books in 2012, including this one!

I must say that I enjoyed the book.  It presents a rather interesting summary of neuroscience, from the very small to the bigger matters.  The authors were able to seamlessly integrate such wide topics as philosophy, biology and cosmology in a coherent way.  I do not know how they pulled it off.

That’s the good news… The not so good news is that there are several instances of innacurate statements, especially in the area of neuroscience.  For example:

Page 57:  They talk about a type of sea slug, and they name it Aplysia californicus.  The correct name is Aplysia californica.  I know, extra picky, but there is a reason for mentioning this fact; it is found at the very end of this post.

Read on…

Page 72:  When talking about some types of glutamate receptors, they correctly named three of the receptor subtypes, those sensitive to the compounds AMPA, NMDA and kainate (look them up, they are really interesting).  However, they imply that these three compounds (A, N and K) are the native neurotransmitters.  They are not.  These three types of receptors are all activated by glutamate, and selectively activated by A, N and K.  This is a technical difference, but it is important.

Page 72 (again):  They allude to some neurological symptoms commonly found in people that consume food derived from certain plants (cycads; a particularly interesting account of this story was written by Dr. Oliver Sacks).  Anyway, in this page they state that consumption of this plant causes Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, allegedly because cycads have a high amount of glutamate.  This is not exactly right.   The symptoms that appear in these patients seem to be a combination of Parkinson’s disease-like and Amyothrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS-Lou Gehrig’s Disease)-symptoms, with some dementia as well; this last part was probably the source of the confusion.  Moreover, the toxicity of this plant is not related to glutamate; it is related to certain specific toxins that the plant produces.

Page 73:  They mention the plant hormone auxin (there are several types) and call it a protein.  This is not correct; auxins are not proteins (I am not even a plant biologist, I have no idea how I knew that…).

Usually, when things like this happen in a book I am reading, it turns me off the book because if I catch mistakes in topics that I am familiar with. I keep wondering what have I missed in those areas that I know little about.  In this case, this did not happen with this book; I kept on reading and it was worth it.  I do not believe that there are grave mistakes in the areas of genetics, evolution, etc., as the authors are established scholars in these specific topics.   This is overall a very good book.  I would recommend it if you want to learn your neuroscience basics, especially in the light of evolution, but please call your local neuroscientist when in doubt about something…

Read the book, you will not regret it!

Speaking of neuroscience, let’s go back to the sea slug, Aplysia californica.  This organism is one of the best characterized animal models to study learning and memory.  The use of Aplysia for this purpose was pioneered by Dr. Eric Kandel and collaborators (Columbia University).  He even shared a Nobel Prize for this research; even better, I met him once; very nice guy!

And this brings me to one of my favorite parts of the book.  In page 182, there is a chapter subsection where they talk about Aplysia.  The subsection is titled:

“Not as pretty as Heidi Klum but nevertheless a darn good model”

Right on both accounts gentlemen, right on both accounts.

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