Friday, July 23, 2021

Thoughts on Kean's Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: Researchers, Patients & Great Debates about the Brain

I read The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of The Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Kean with great interest. 

The title of this book is long and cumbersome, and I didn't find it appealing -- initially. However, it's an accurate description of the book.

The book covers key figures in the "history of the human brain," particularly "neurosurgeons." For instance, it talks about how neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield discovered that the brain could be stimulated by electrical current and how the great neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing performed pioneering work on the pituitary gland. It also discusses work by many other non-surgical researchers, such as Roger Sperry's work on lateralized brains and Prusiner and Gajdusek's work on kuru and protein misfolding diseases.

At first, I found the word "dueling" in the title to be cryptic, but it turns out to nicely summarize how the book presents each of the key figures as addressing a debate in neuroscience. These debates included whether nerve impulses were transmitted through Cajal's neurons or through a non-neural alternative (propagated by Golgi), whether the mode of transmission is electrical or chemical (the soup vs. spark debate), and whether we have just one or multiple types of memory (addressed by Brenda Milner in relation to the famous patient, H.M.). One of the debates I found particularly interesting was Broca and Wernicke's, whether brain functions such as language were localized to specific brain regions.

The final part of the title, "the true stories of trauma, madness, and recovery," illustrates how the book is also about the patients who have given their life to provide information about the brain. These include H.M., and also  W.J. (who was instrumental in understanding the corpus callosum), Mary Rafferty (who died demonstrating that an electrical shock could stimulate various brain regions) and the conjoined brain twins, Tatiana and Krista (who have illuminated much about the concept of consciousness and the self). 

Altogether, I thought this was an entertaining work that taught me a lot about the brain. Its mode of instruction in discussing individual people throughout history and the specific conflicts that they engaged in was effective in getting across key scientific ideas. 

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery 
by Sam Kean (Author)