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The Spark of Life I think most of us are aware that the human body uses both chemical and electrical signalling to control its inner functions but until I read this book I had certainly never realised that extent to which a rather strange electrical process strange because it involves the flow not of electrons as in ‘normal’ electricity but of ions is handled by ion channelsAfter a preface that is a little confusing as she uses terms that aren’t really explained until later biologist Frances Ashcroft who spends her days working with ion channels gives us a brief introduction to electricity This physics part is by far the weakest bit of the book For example she doesn’t differentiate between a flow of electrons and the electromagnetic signal in a wire – and some of the history is a little out of date she says for instance that Franklin did the ‘kite in a thunderstorm’ experiment which is thought unlikely now But this is only an introductory phase before we get into the meat of the book which is uite fascinatingAshcroft explains how ion channels can open and close to allow a flow of ions through and how electrical energy is involved in making these essential cell components function This is absolutely fascinating from the first mention of sodium pumps I was hoping to come across the medication type proton pump inhibitors which like many thousands of people I take but if they were mentioned I missed it It is remarkable how this essential part of cell function wasn’t properly understood until around 50 years agoFor the rest of the book we are taken on a tour of the body and the way that ion channels have a powerful influence on everything from poisoning to the functioning of memory It is uite mind boggling just how much these tiny channels do for us – always dependent on that electrical motive powerFor me – and it is fair to say that my biology tolerance is pretty low – the book did get a little repetitious in some ways if only because of the central role of ion channels throughout I suspect though for many the connection with the functioning of the human body will keep that interest going – and Ashcroft has a light approachable tone and makes sufficient ventures into the wider picture to keep the reader on board Overall a subject that clearly needed writing about carefully and entertainingly revealedReview first published on wwwpopularsciencecouk and reproduced with permission A well written and balanced book that gets neither too complex or patronising delivering the technical facts at a rate they can be absorbed by the layperson interspersed with a level of anecdotes that keep it flowing at an agreeable rate without it becoming a tome of personal triumph or vehicle for misplaced humour as is often the case with less diligent science authors Since I’m in the middle of my female authors only month I thought now would be a good time to get round to some of the non fiction books I have by women especially in the STEM field I’d forgotten I had this one which is a shame it fits into my general theme of reading about neurology and builds on a lot of the stuff about ion channels that I learnt in an introductory biology class on Coursera I understood pretty much all the science without wanting or needing to look anything up or letting anything wash over my head in part that’s because Ashcroft writes very accessibly but I think it is also because this is stuff I know and loveSome of it is a little too much towards the neurology end of things for me I wanted about electricity in the human body — of the sparks — and less of the chemical messages the soups in that old scientific debate; this veered towards talking much about the chemical parts of the process especially toward the end On the other hand it’s the chemical processes that create the electrical potentials and make all of the electricity in the human body and other animals too possible so it’s uite inextricable It just felt like it wanderedCalling the book The Spark of Life is a little misleading perhaps It talks about electricity in the body yeah but that’s too small a part of the process to be considered alone and a lot of other factors have to be discussed at uite some length Ashcroft uses good examples and explains things clearly; there’s a section of notes in the back for those who want to get a little deeper into itOriginally posted here For such an interesting topic reading this book really felt like a chore sometimes The author jumped from one topic to another a lot had too many unnecessary details and dates and the overall writing style just wasn't engaging enough in my opinion I still found some chapters uite interesting so 3 stars 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 uestions lie in the electrical signals constantly traveling through our bodies driving our thoughts our movements and even the beating of our heartsThe 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 Rating 4 of 5Okay so I think I'll have to read The Spark of Life Electricity in the Human Body at least three or four times to fully understand everything Ashcroft covered It was fascinating to learn the history of electricity and I couldn't get enough of Chapter 9 The Doors of Perception Even for non scientists like moi there is much to learn from The Spark of Life despite its scientific terminology and explanations What I loved most about the book was how much it made is making me think and wonderThe freakiest part of the whole book was pages 309 311 when Ashcroft shared her desire for a intimate connection between the brain and a computer To paraphrase she'd like the ability to physically connect her brain to a computer in order to instantly access memories and important information She admits this is currently only science fiction But science fiction often has a way of becoming science fact Anyone see this episode of X Files? I'll pass thank you very muchNotes to selfIon channels are truly the 'spark of life' for they govern every aspect of our behavior p5Channel dysfunction is responsible for many diseasesLuigi Galvani first discovered 'animal electricity' galvanismThomas Francois Dalibard not Ben Franklin was the first to demonstrate that lightning is an electrical dischargeAlessandro Volta invested the first electric battery volt unit of electrical potentialWe too are electrical machines and the electrical currents lie at the heart of life itself p33Opposite charges attract one another Similar charges repel p36Electrical signal travels almost the speed of light 186 million miles per second; nerve impulses at 007 miles per second p 37 BioelectricityIon channels are the gatekeepers of the cellueen of Poisons aconite or aconitine which comes from monkshood wolfsbane a pretty plant with a tall spike of blue helmet shaped flowers pp 75 76Some species of rhododendron grayanotoxin Bees feed on those flowers people eat those bees' honey 'mad honey syndrome' p77'The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy' Paracelsus p81Electrical eel torpedo sting ray p122 The Spark of Life is a fascinating tour of the electrochemical system in the human body Starting with the discovery of electricity and the subseuent evolution in the understanding of the role of electricity in the body Ashcroft cogently explains in relatively deep technical detail the many aspects of the human electrical system I had not known about the many different ways that tetrodotoxin the toxin in fugu curare sarin and other toxins do their damage whether blocking shut ion channels blocking open ion channels preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine etc There’s also a good explanation and funny picture of myotonic fainting goatsI read about 23 of this book before having to return it to my local library because it was closing for renovations for an extended period of time After it reopened and I was able to check it out again I remembered how much I enjoyed the book and I started over from the first page I virtually never read a book twice so that it is a very positive complimentMy biggest criticism of the book is that some chapters especially in the second half come across as collections of somewhat related bits of information about electricity in the human body Now this info was still fascinating but it felt at times like reading from Wikipedia pages But very well written ones A scientist talking about 'electricity in the human body' ties into energy therapy design in nature and the dots are starting to join up but I'm only on p58 Do you thirst for in depth explanations about how your body works? If so read this book We know well how an electric cord works when plugged into an outlet and a switch is flipped But what plugs you in? What sort of current does the human body use to breathe eat move have sex read a book or even to sit and think? Ashcroft goes into great detail about the currents that make you an active system Instead of an outlet in a wall the currents inside humans and other animals are generated by tiny ions that flow through ion channels This is the thermodynamics of life at its best Though she never actually mentions thermodynamics Ashcroft included all the best concepts learned in classes such as intro to neuroscience intermediate biochen and the lighter aspects of neurocellular biochem and neurophysics For example she does an amazing job of explaining how the inside of the cell has a high potassium concentration while the outside of the cell has high sodium concentration This creates a gradient that allows the current of bio electricity to continually flow through the body Having done such a great job simplifying that for the reader Ashcroft was perfectly positioned to explain how that current is turned into axon potentials which govern every process in which humans engage She really brought the magic of cells and ion channels alive Energy flow in the human body and in all cells is one of my favorite topics to read about and think about It's hard to find a book this detailed Some authors choose this subject to write about but their numbers are surprisingly few Nick Lane's Life ascending and Power Sex and Suicide were extremely satisfying for me but not as relatable as Ashcroft's writing I have to say I felt entirely perplexed that Ashcroft believes that life probably began in a tiny little pond I have no idea how she can believe this It's entirely possible Nick Lane along with Martin and Russell are wrong in their hypothesis that life originated at the hydrothermal vents But if life did not originate there it seems necessary not just likely that it arose somewhere that provided the energy needed to create and maintain enzymes that make cellular products This aspect of the book will bother me continuously until I understand how she can account for the needed energy of the enzymes She is far knowledgeable than I am as is Nick Lane So I am sure there is something I missing about her hypothesis But it's driving me crazy and she did not write about where the energy would have come from in her scenarioFrom page one I fell in love with this book It was uickly clear that this was the biochem ion channel book I have been looking for all my life I remember learning about how our brain cells work to help us see smell taste hear see and touch our world My mind was completely blown away because I simply could not believe nature could be that beautiful and that brilliant But it is and Ashcroft did a great job of conveying how much of that brilliance is due to ion channels Ashcroft herself states that This is a book about ion channels Indeed it is For it is the ion channel that takes every experience you will ever have with the world around you and detects transmits and processes every last bit of it so that you can even call it an experience It was clear to me that Ashcroft is in awe of the body which has as many cells as the galaxy has stars and the brains inside those bodies She wrote about action potentials resting potentials on each side of the membrane and why that matters and how that makes you able to function and live in the world Despite having read so much similar material for years Ashcroft made my dopamine neurons go crazy during each page because she explains it all so tremendously well I would have been happy with a book 4 times as long Her coverage of cell suicide was crazy good; so good in fact I kept saying How can this book even exist? I really love cells Cells kill themselves all the time for the good of the system the animal body For example if cells did not undergo apoptosis during our fetal development we would all have webbed fingers and toes If cells didn't undergo apoptosis after we were born our brains simply could not function After she provided examples of apoptosis in the human animal she wrote about the actual process of apoptosis in which the cell takes over the mitochondria and directs it to kill itself so goodShe gave a beautiful description of photosynthesis but it is likely not what you have heard before Yes she covers the basics but she tells the story of photosynthesis from the perspective of the ion channel The last part of the book discussed what happens when ion channels work or do not work correctly The result is a sensual experience of the world or an inability to sense the world This section came alive with great examples including somme little known trivia about Monet Thank you Frances Ashcroft for writing a book that makes me feel like I was lucky enough to hop on a plane fly over to England take a seat in your lecture hall at Oxford University and learn the intricate details about the energetics of animal systems and not to have to do problem sets or take exams The only thing that would make me happier would be for Ashcroft to put her lectures in a public domain so I could watch every last one of them This was not a fast read but uite understandable to the educated layperson I learned a great deal from the AC or DC wars of Edison and Tesla to the ways ion channels which are proteins control whether and when certain ions pass into or out of the cells causing electrical currents throughout the neurons causing muscles to contract and glands to secrete or not The history of the discovery of electricity was great and the means by which it has been used for good or ill to treat many different maladies was a very interesting aspect of the bookThe fact that the ion channels can be deformed due to genetic mutations causing lifelong serious illness was fascinating as well as the possibility of finding ways to treat these problemsThe functions of the sense organs and various receptors including those for taste and pain were elucidated I found a plausible explanation of why some people are sensitive to pain than others reuiring pain medication for example a subject I often wondered about It's all about Nav17 sodium channels A common genetic variant in these protein channels can determine a pain thresholdI think I would like to own this book I got it from the library because there is so much information that will be hard to remember I would like to refer to it oftenMaybe I will get a copy for Christmas???

About the Author: Frances Ashcroft

Frances Ashcroft MA PhD FRS is a British physiologist She is Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Research Professor in the University of Oxford She is a fellow of Trinity College and with Kay Davies and Peter Donnelly is a director of the Oxford Centre for Gene FunctionHer research group has an international reputation for work on insulin secretion type II diabetes and neonatal diabetes Her work w

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