Review: The Future of the Brain

Neuroscientist Steven Rose goes to great lengths to correct common misperceptions about the explanatory potential of current genetics, evolutionary psychology, and molecular neuroscience. Ultimately, only the last two chapters cover the "future" of the neurosciences, delving into topics like transcranial magnetic stimulation, pharmacological cognitive enhancement, and neuroethics. But before telling us where we're headed, Rose spends 10 chapters telling us where we've been, both in terms of cognitive change across the lifespan, the cascading processes of synaptogenesis and apoptosis seen in utero and in early childhood, and the changes in brains both across species and across evolutionary time. If "The Future of the Brain" could be said to have a central principle, it's that "the past is the key to the present," and it is here that Rose's talents as a writer truly shine: he integrates the histories of neurons, individuals, psychopharmacology, sociobiology, cognitive psychology and genetics into a coherent narrative, with both appropriate subtlety and engaging clarity.

Rose begins with theories of the origins of life, proto-cells, and nucleic acids. He uses this broad introduction to debunk the simplifications we often make without hesitation: thinking of humankind as the highest on some evolutionary scale of nature; considering organisms to be passive players in evolution; believing that evolution strives for increased complexity as time continues. As he writes, "all living forms on earth ... are more or less equally fit for the environment and life style they have chosen. I use the word chosen deliberately, for organisms are not merely the passive products of selection; in a very real sense they create their own environments ... The grand metaphor of natural selection suggers from its implication that organisms are passive, blown hither and thither by environment change as opposed to being active players in their own destiny." In this way, Rose complicates the popular notion of causality frequently seen in news articles, where researchers claim to have discovered a gene "for" this or that; to Rose, every result has multiple causes, both genetic and environmental.

After reviewing how neural nets may have initially developed in the first multicellular animals (Coelenterates), Rose describes the development of the mammalian cortex during gestation as autopoesis, the process of continual self-creation. The reader is whisked from fertilisation to the embryonic formation of the neural groove, to the birth of neurons and glia in the neural tube, to the migration of neurons as they follow concentration gradients of neural growth factors. We then follow changes in brain structure seen in hominins, then hominids, and finally homo sapiens.

The later chapters document the development of psychopharmacology and the rise of Big Pharma, from aspirin to valium and now Ritalin and Strattera. Rose winds up with fascinating predictions about the future of neurotechnology, all of them well-tempered by a thorough understanding of our past.

Rose's book is quite simply the best popular neuroscience writing I have read. It is hard to imagine another writer that could so seamlessly weave together the fields of genetics, cognitive science, neurophysiology, and pharmacology into such an entertaining yet informative book. Highly recommended...


Blogger Chris Chatham said...

My goal is to post a new review of neuroscience books (popular or scholarly) once every 1-2 months, so if anyone has a suggestion for a future book, I'm all ears. Maybe the next one will be Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad Is Good for You."

1/06/2006 09:10:00 AM  

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