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Book Review: The Root of Thought: Unlocking Glia--The Brain Cell That Will Help Us Sharpen Our Wits, Heal Injury, and Treat Brain Disease by Andrew Koob

Review by Tina Hesman Saey

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It is famously — and incorrectly — said that humans use only 10 percent of their brains. The claim stems from the observation that only about 10 percent of brain cells are neurons, electrically active cells thought to carry and store information. This book celebrates the other 90 percent, cells known as glia.

Once thought to merely hold the brain together, glia are now recognized as an important support system for neurons. But Koob, a neuroscientist, points out that glia are not just bit players. He glorifies them, especially star-shaped cells known as astrocytes, as the real movers and shakers of thought and intelligence.
Koob shows disdain for neurons and the scientists who relegate glia to the background by advancing the theory that neurons alone are responsible for information transport and storage.

Astrocytes control neurons, not vice versa, Koob argues. He cites a wealth of studies to support this idea, but he also extrapolates beyond the findings, implicating glia in everything from dreaming to disease. According to Koob, Einstein’s genius stemmed from an abundance of astrocytes populating brain areas involved in math and language. Glia have certainly gotten short shrift for much of brain science’s history, but it remains to be seen whether, as Koob claims, astrocytes are the true “nerve centers” and neurons only highways connecting the hubs of astrocyte activity.

FT Press Science, 2009, 192 p., $24.99

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