The electrome syndrome | Business Standard News
WE ARE ELECTRIC: Inside the 200-Year Hunt for Our Body’s Bioelectric Code, and What the Future Holds
Author: Sally Adee
In the spring of 1969, I was committed to a British hospital — “asylum” was the word chiselled on its Victorian archway — where during my weeks of enforced residence I was given six memorably disagreeable jolts of electricity through my brain. It was the same treatment — electro-convulsive therapy, ECT — as was infamously administered to R P McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Though things didn’t turn out too well for the character, in my case it worked, impeccably. Whatever had ailed me promptly went away and has never once recurred. And so I am a fan, a committed believer in the use of the medically prescribed marriage of high voltage and brain matter in helping to improve the occasional disarrangements of the human condition.
More than half a century later, the engaging science writer Sally Adee volunteered to endure much the same assault — though at a gentler voltage — on her own grey matter. But for different and much more interesting (and maybe disturbing) reasons, as she relates in her excellent first book, We Are Electric, about the newly discovered world of the body’s so-called electrome.
Most of us are familiar with those biological terms ending with ome and implying a totality: Genome, biome, proteome. The very new concept of the electrome is entirely different: The others all have mass. But the electrome has no mass at all, nor any weight; it is simply the electricity that courses through your body and its 40 trillion cells, and which transmits encoded signals through and between everything, head to toe.
The divinely-minded will be tempted to conceptualise the electrome as the human soul. But Ms Adee has no truck with such fancies. Soul or not, though bioelectricity weighs nothing it can do fantastic things. Ms Adee knows; she has read for our benefit what seems like the entire history of bodily battery power — especially the delicious 18th-century tussle between the Signori Volta and Galvani, in the matter of the twitching of frogs’ legs. She has also slogged through all the later research papers on electricity-related cellular biology. And all of this eventually led her into the long grass of some mightily weird modern research.
A decade ago, Ms Adee became intrigued by some highly secret taxpayer-funded work performed by the Pentagon’s ultra-costly fun factory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), inventors (they claim) of the internet. Lately the agency has been conducting, if that be the word, experiments on how best to harness the body’s minute pulses of cellular battery power, and turn them to military advantage. Might electricity help our GIs to whack our enemies ever more quickly and efficiently, tuning a soldier’s brain by jolting it with carefully targeted surges of electric shocks?
We Are Electric begins with a highly seductive scenario: Ms Adee is flown from Europe to a clandestine Pentagon facility in the mountains of Southern California. Here she signs waivers and NDAs and suchlike, has neon green goop slapped onto her temples and strange daisy-like electrodes clamped to her head and wires tucked into the back of her bra. She is led into an immense hangar-like building kitted out to look like a US Army desert outpost, is given an M4 rifle and, protected behind a wall of sandbags, is ordered to stand sentry at a checkpoint and defend it with as much efficiency as she can muster.
The lights dim, and a tsunami of simulated assaults then commences, overwhelming the scene. Computer-generated enemy troops flood onto the field, squadrons of Humvees, faceless men with suicide belts, all attacking without mercy, and at all of which Ms Adee fires her gun, wildly. Mostly, she misses.
Then the smoke clears, her DARPA handler-bros return and this time they turn on the juice. The lights dim once again, the faux-soldiers pour in and everything changes. Through the smoke and din and confusion of battle, there emerges from within Ms Adee’s terrified mind the calculating confidence of a cool and logically-directed assassin. One by one she picks off the invaders. She fires and fires until her magazine is depleted. The battlespace falls silent. The smoke clears once again.
How many did I get? she asks, high on electrically-induced adrenaline. All of them, she is told.
By now the DARPA project, known as transcranial direct-current stimulation, tDCS, has moved well beyond the mere proof-of-concept with which Ms Adee was toying. Word has hit the street: Do-it-yourself mind-enhancement kits have appeared on the market. The Pentagon now believes all manner of improvement can be made to soldiers’ brains — languages can be learned more quickly, weapons maintenance can be performed better, logistical problems solved more effectively.
And it is not just the military who sees the potential. Medicine in particular has plans to crack the codes of the electrical microcurrents that trickle and cascade through us all, and by manipulating those codes all manner of ailments can perhaps be cured or mitigated — this time with power, not pills.
Sally Adee has written an absorbing and fast-paced account of a field of research that could thus herald a whole new era of paradigm-shifting medicine. Moreover, she has done so without apparently drinking the Kool-Aid of today’s many bioelectricity boosters.
Tinkering with the body’s electrome may yet be a more risky venture than we suppose. Ms Adee has performed sterling service in persuading us to contemplate the benefits and possible implications of what seems our inevitable electric future.
©2023 The New York Times News Service