The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Minds and Machines
by Malcolm Gay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015 ($26)

In one of the most memorable scenes from the early Star Trek movies, Dr. Leonard McCoy confronts a 20th-century surgeon, who is about to drill holes in Enterprise navigator Pavel Chekov's head, and gives him a dressing-down, roaring about the era's primitive “butcher knives.” McCoy soon repairs Chekov's badly damaged brain with a high-tech gizmo from the future that looks like an Xbox and doesn't even break the skin.

Hold that image in mind—of the extreme contrast between the primitive present and the supposedly wondrous future—and you will begin to understand why journalist Gay's The Brain Electric is, all at once, one of the most fascinating and exasperating books you will ever read. Why? Because it is about the almost unspeakably primitive drills and butcher knives that some of today's leading scientists are using to try to bring about the extraordinary future we so often picture in science-fiction movies.

To get to a future in which someday, maybe, people will communicate with computers, the Internet and even one another using their thoughts alone—no more keyboards, mice, telephones or shouting at your kids down the block—you need to start somewhere, right? Gay takes us into the gritty labs of the surgeons who have been doing the hard work for the past 15 years: Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and others. They all are in cutthroat competition for the next big DARPA grant and, of course, for the brass ring—the Nobel Prize that is almost certain to be awarded to the best of the lot.

And talk about grit. Gay takes us step by gruesome step through procedure after procedure in which cocksure docs breach skulls and implant arrays of electrodes into the brains of rats, monkeys, and paralyzed and epileptic humans in brazen attempts to get neurons communicating meaningfully with computers. Occasionally there is a breakthrough: a paraplegic woman thinks a robot arm to feed herself; a monkey whose arms and hands are restrained plays a video game; the brains of two rats are linked in a way that gets the actions of one to affect the actions of the other.

So amazing, so promising—and so frustratingly primitive. The brain has 100 billion neurons, but even the most sophisticated implants can monitor only a few hundred. Within weeks or months the immune system invariably attacks the implanted electrodes, rendering many of them useless, and the brain changes so rapidly that connections often have to be recalibrated daily to keep them working properly. There are no cures, no miracles—only suggestive demonstrations, foretelling—who knows, really?

The book ends with a sobering reminder of just how rudimentary present-day brain science is. Gay quotes Schwartz: “We have no idea what makes a neuron fire…, and that's at the root of everything.” But you have to start somewhere, right?

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN AND FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX ARE AFFILIATES