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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Brain Dead?

When you write science fiction, you often find yourself in the position of thinking about the sciences in general. And it came home to me recently how strangely out of sync progress in medicine is in comparison with— for instance— physics or chemistry. While it’s easy to point out the massive progress medicine has made over the past ten, twenty, or fifty years, we have to face the fact that a large part of medical science is still limited to doing something to someone and noting the results. Pharmaceutical companies can’t even predict how well a medication might work, or what side effects it might have, until it’s actually used in trials. This would be like an car company having to build several full-scale model vehicles in order to figure out not only which design might actually run, but which ones wouldn’t blow up or fall apart.

The sad fact is that medicine wasn’t really a science until around World War I. To put that another way, a Chinese herbalist is only about 80 years behind your local neurosurgeon technology-wise. For the SF writer, that means that if you want to place a bet on where your next major world-shaking scientific discovery is going to come from, medical science is a good bet. There’s just a lot more uncharted territory. While it's unlikely that any future work in physics will upend the premises set down by Newton or Einstein, we can be certain that some of the current fundamental “truths” of accepted medical science will be overturned.

An example; the accepted fact that nerve tissue does not regenerate and brain damage is permanent and irreversible. 19 years ago, a man named Terry Wallis was in an auto accident and suffered severe brain damage. He entered a coma from which he was never expected to awake. However, three years ago he did wake up. Not only that, his condition has been improving since, and he has been regaining some motor functions. While still profoundly disabled, he is fully conscious and able to communicate. Most exciting, his doctors have found evidence of his brain rebuilding itself.


LenaS said...

Glad I went on a search for you now, now that you have the blog. And that's an interesting post. Brings up all sorts of other issues.