The wonders to come when thoughts control not only us but our tools, communications and artificial body parts.
In his first book, Nicolelis (Neuroscience/Duke Univ.) delivers an enthusiastic history of research on the brain and describes current efforts to understand how it works and how to integrate it with the world outside our bodies. Early neuroscientists broke the brain down into individual regions (speech, vision, memory), studying single neurons in the hope of explaining how the brain works. But a single violinist can’t produce a symphony, writes the author, a proponent of the distributionist school who believe that populations of neurons, not individuals, form the brain’s true functional unit. Recent technical advances allow scientists access to these complex collections of neurons with exciting results that may lead to even more exciting applications, which Nicolelis eagerly lays out. Researchers, including the author, have already trained subjects to operate prosthetic arms, guide robots, exchange brain signals and maneuver a wheelchair by simply thinking. Readers may prefer to skip directly to these achievements and skim even these when their comprehension lags. Groundbreaking experiments, including the author’s, involve inserting numerous electrodes directly into brains, and while Nicolelis communicates his excitement at the resulting computer readouts, his explanations of what is actually happening are far too detailed and technical for the lay reader, delivered in the convoluted prose typical of academic journals.
The author provides an intriguing, nuts-and-bolts view of brain research, but readers without a background in physical science will have a frustrating time.