Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

David Price, Andrew Jarman, John Mason and Peter Kind:
Building Brains. An Introduction to Neural Development.

Paperback: 348 pages
Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (May 16, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0470712295
ISBN-13: 978-0470712290
Price: 43.00 EUR

What it Takes to Make a Brain

It does not take much to build a brain. However, sometimes something goes wrong.

First you need a zygote, then things get complicated. Will this book help its readers to make a brain, or at least to gain a better understanding of how brains are built during animal development?

How does something as small as a cell in a woman’s uterus eventually become a human? This question has troubled scientists for centuries and driven them to make occasionally weird observations. The first bio­logists able to observe a sperm under the microscope, for example, claimed that they were able to see a ‘little man’ inside it, thus concluding that humans were already ‘formed’ before fertilisation and that they needed only to grow for the next nine months inside mom’s belly. As ridiculous as it sounds today, at the time this seemed reasonable, with no alternative explanations available. It took time and better microscopic and molecular techniques to understand that the embryo progressively acquires a shape and that genes do play an important role in this.

We still aren’t able to fully explain how humans – or other animals or plants – develop from a single cell. Yet every developmental biologist agrees that there are no little men lurking inside sperm. The development of new life involves intricate processes that must take place to give rise to an individual. Among those, the ones involved in forming our brain are particularly interesting. In their new book, Building Brains, David Price and colleagues from the developmental neuroscience department at the University of Edinburgh, tell us the story of how the nervous system is built in an individual. They start with our teeny-weeny cell, carrying on until the completion of a mature functioning system.

Stepwise and not just about humans

Building Brains gives a detailed account of this developmental process. Once the initial cell starts dividing, daughter cells will organize into different tissues or germ layers. The outer one, also known as the ecto­derm, is the one that will give rise to the nervous system. The next chapters focus on neurons: their birth, migration, shape and excitability. And, in the finale of chapter twelve, the authors also remind us that not everything is written in stone; experience (i.e. stimuli) also influences development.

The image on the cover of the book, a child’s brain represented by coloured cubes, might initially suggest to the reader that the textbook is about the development of the human brain. Fortunately, this is not true. For obvious reasons, research on brain development has been done in different animal models and the authors introduce them from the very beginning: flies, worms, frogs, chickens and mice, among others. These model organisms have certainly been helpful for understanding neural development in humans and in different animal groups.

But they also offer us hints that help us to reconstruct the evolution of the nervous system. In this sense, the book lacks an evolutionary perspective. In most chapters, its authors write about homologues of genes between different species and protein conservation. However, given the topic of the textbook and its emphasis on including many animal models, a stronger focus to link them all or even a chapter on the evolution of brain development would be, perhaps not indispensable, but extremely helpful for integrating the rest of the information.

A good educational source...

The book is inspired by a course that the authors gave at the University of Edinburgh and it is evident that they care about students. As they promise in the preface, they do not assume great knowledge about molecular biology and neurosciences and the text is readable for any person with a basic knowledge of biology. Inside the book they also include funny analogies that make everything easier to understand. Comparing the axon of a newborn neuron with a tourist arriving in an unfamiliar city, for example, does indeed help the reader to grasp how cues in the environment inside the brain can guide the axon to its target.

Furthermore, this edition deserves special recognition as the photos and diagrams were carefully selected to help in achieving the didactic purpose of the book. Teachers on the subject should also be thankful that figures can be downloaded in Powerpoint format from the book’s website.

... but not the best reference book

Compared to other textbooks on neural development, this one is more suitable for students that are new to the topic. In contrast, this might not be the best choice if you are looking for a reference book, as the information is rather simplified. A good detailed book more on the reference-style side is Developmental Neurobiology (by Mahendra Rao & Marcus Jacobson, Springer, 2005, €107). It’s a bit heavy for newbies though. So it depends on what the reader is looking for.

Building Brains, on the other hand, is a good start to understanding what goes on during the complex process that takes us from a tiny, simple cell to the complexities of the brain.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013