Dr. Heilman is the James D. Rooks, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Health Psychology at the the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.
Mind Catcher By John Darnton 387 pages • Dutton 2002
The last two to three decades have been a special time in the history of neurology and neuroscience – with many new theoretical and technical advances. When I was a resident back in the late sixties, there was no non-invasive means of anatomic imaging. Now, we not only have the ability to see the brain's structure in living people, but also we can see how it is functioning by using positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Although electrophysiological recordings have been available for about a century, powerful computers now allow us to decode the functions of neuronal assemblies.
Neurons communicate with each other by chemical transmitters – and now with powerful new drugs we can alter these messages.
Also, when I was a resident, we learned that the brain is not a muscle and that we are born with all the neurons we will ever have. Now we know that the brain can functionally change with exercise and that the brain contains stem cells that may have the potential to develop into neurons.
FICTIONALIZING SCIENCE ADVANCES
These dramatic scientific advances would make an excellent foundation for science fiction. Surprisingly, until now, there have been few attempts to use neuroscience models as a basis for fiction. That is why I was excited about reading John Darnton's new book, Mind Catcher.
In Mind Catcher, Mr. Darnton tells the story of a single father, Scott, and his only son Tyler, who is loved by his father as only parents can love their children. Tyler goes with his friend and his friend's family to the mountains where they decide to go climbing. While they are ascending the mountain, another climber above them accidentally drops metal gear, which pierces Tyler's skull and destroys much of his brain.
Tyler is brought to a hospital in New York City where an arrogant and egocentric neurosurgeon plans to remove the metal while extracting some of Tyler's surviving neuronal stem cells. The plan is to keep Tyler on life support while a scientist grows Tyler's stem cells in the laboratory and then a neurosurgeon transplants the laboratory-grown colonies back into Tyler.
THE MAD SCIENTIST
Up to this part of the novel, Mr. Darnton kept my attention, but I found myself losing interest when he introduces a new character, Dr. Cleaver, the mad evil scientist. Despite his name, Dr. Cleaver does not chop people up, but he does work in an old decrepit insane asylum where he performs unethical experiments to let people see their loved ones as they are dying.
Dr. Cleaver also works with a machine called a transcranial stimulator-receiver (TSR). This machine can access the minds of dying people through their eyes, recording their thoughts using a helmet that contains scalp electrodes. This machine can also take their minds outside their bodies and allow them to lead an independent existence.
Dr. Cleaver, who works with the neurosurgeon taking care of Tyler, steals Tyler's body, brings it to the basement of this asylum, and sends his mind to something akin to cyberspace. While looking at a computer monitor, Scott reads a message from his son asking his father to rescue him. Scott manages to get into this machine to rescue his son's mind.
A CREDIBILITY STRETCH
To keep my attention, science fiction has to be credible and plausible. The portion of this book that dealt with head injury and stem cells was both. The author loses me, however, with his treatment of the TSR. That is just too much for this neurologist to accept. I couldn't buy into the notion of a machine that can steal people's minds and allow them to live independently with a preserved ability to communicate to people through computers.
While neurologists, neurosurgeons, and neuroscientists might not always agree on how to treat an asymptomatic person with a 70-percent carotid stenosis, I think most would now agree that the brain is the seat of the mind and Tyler has lost his brain. How then could this machine remove a mind that was no longer present? Clearly, this was an oversight on the author's part – an aspect that could have been set straight with a little more research.
To learn what happens to Tyler and Scott, you might have to read this book; that is, unless you put me in a TSR machine and tune your computer on to the correct channel.