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The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science by R. Douglas Fields, Ph. D., is a comprehensive look at the current research, theories, and potential surrounding glial cells in the nervous system at the date of publication (2009). Although the analogies are often disconnected and tend to vastly overshadow the amount of (sometimes poorly organized) presented scientific content, as a whole the book provided enough information to grasp the big picture of the fields involved in the study of glial cells and acted as a very good starting ground to research certain topics on my own.
The book was divided into three parts: "Discovering the Other Brain", which introduced the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, as well as how the brain is studied by scientists; "Glia in Health and Disease", which explored many ways in which the "other brain" might affect a wide variety of neurological disorders, in some ways more than the extensively-studied neurons; and "Glia in Thought and Memory", which mentioned possible roles of glia in structures of the brain related to memory and sleep.
"Discovering the Other Brain"
I am giving this book an overall review of 3 out of 5 stars because, while incredibly informative about the potential for glial cells, the presentation of this information seemed broken and like concepts were separated by entire topics, especially in the beginning of the book, which described the basic anatomy and physiology of glial cells. The introduction of astrocytes, for example, was interrupted twice in a continuing discussion of Schwann cells and microglia. Many analogies used in the first section, although easy to conceptualize, would often seem to come out of nowhere, and more often than not would have nothing to do with one another.
This section and the last section encompass no more than 20% of the book, despite introducing anecdotes that are almost forced throughout the book, especially the long-winded anecdote about Albert Einstein's brain fragments. I found that having previous exposure to the concepts described greatly helped in navigating the laundry list of analogies, none related, for these explanations. For those without a background in neuroanatomy, otherwise known as the target audience for the book, I recommend liberal use of the glossary in the back of the book, which cuts out the jungle of analogies and presents the topics in a very technical fashion, even if said glossary is very redundant for its small size (only ten pages). While the glossary is very technical, which has been stated in previous reviews for this book, it can prove useful in conjunction with the myriad of analogies presented in the text.
It is still possible to understand the thesis of the book without being an expert in glia, but you will get more out of the premise and potential research later described if you have a good grasp on what these first 60 pages try to describe. A few research methods are mentioned in this section in order to encourage an appreciation for the field. However, the descriptions are structured in such a way that someone without background knowledge of various analytical methods could be easily overwhelmed by the processes involved.
"Glia in Health and Disease"
This section is the entire point and purpose of the book: how glia can and should be implicated in a variety of diseases of the nervous system, and how glia might provide a means to cure many of these diseases (from dementia to schizophrenia, as the title indicates). Or, at least, the nearly 200-page section describes how far research has come in the implications of glia in various nervous system ailments. With the almost offended assertion that these cells have been vastly overlooked throughout history, it's no surprise that almost every subsection, every ailment touched upon, concludes with some re-wording of the statement, "Further research in glia could provide more answers to the nature of this disease."
Interestingly enough, this section (and its subsections) read like it could have stood alone as its own publication, or publications. Concepts established in the second chapter, like the definition of a synapse, were re-described in chapter 11, although without the vivid oceanfront analogy. The technical jargon in this section did not seem to impede understanding of the broad concepts being described, but many of the analogies were still jarringly disconnected from any theme, although the number of analogies and anecdotes decreases as the book progresses.
Effects of non-glial cells on the diseases described are only mentioned to the extent that they have relation to the glia. There is little mention of neurons without an accompanying discussion on the myelin protecting them; white blood cells are never mentioned unless they are contrasted against microglia; astrocytes are redefined almost every time they are mentioned. In a book entirely about glia, this is not unexpected, but when the same argument is presented in slightly varied ways over the span of 200 pages, it tends to wear the reader down. Although informative, and although I now have a decent basis for where to begin outside research on the subject, I do not recommend tackling this section in one sitting without a mountain of patience, especially if you have any rapt interest in the disorders being discussed, as they are usually only briefly touched on (through no fault of the author, just for the fact that, as the thesis of the book alludes, glia are often overlooked in neurological research).
"Glia in Thought and Memory"
The last section, about the same length as the first section, describes glia in the midbrain, especially in the hippocampus, thalamus, and hypothalamus, and continuously refers back to the finding that astrocytes migrate within these areas, even though this property of astrocytes has been referenced multiple times in the preceding 250 pages. This section is as scattered in organization as the first, with each chapter touching on another random finding from these aforementioned areas. One sentence, "If neurons are telephones connected through hardwired lines of communication, astrocytes are cell phones, broadcasting their signals widely," appears in the first and last section without much explanation as to why other than the use of neurotransmitters.
Each section continues the trend of isolated subcategories that seem only tangentially related and which find the need to re-explain what the essential anatomy and physiology of glia and related structures are. The same questions that were elaborated on in previous sections in reference to separate topics are presented as new ideas, and the tone seems to mock the reader's apparent ignorance more in this section than in any other, which is impressive considering how condescending it was in the first section.
Overall, the book compiled interesting anecdotes and research about the potential of future studies in glia, and despite being repetitive and unorganized, would be a good read for anyone interested in looking for a place to start looking into the prospects of glia in a handful of neurological disorders. For the average reader, however, the book does not provide straight answers to the questions it poses. Research in glia is still lacking, and as such, many of the ideas presented as possible solutions are not proven. This is not a book to base a diagnosis or any other opinion about these disorders off of.