We are Electric:Inside the 200-year Hunt for Our Body's Bioelectric Code and What the Future Holds

Date Reviewed
December 11th 2023

'We are Electric:Inside the 200-year Hunt for Our Body's Bioelectric Code and What the Future Holds' is a good start for author Sally Adee's first book. It explores a challenging level of scientific knowledge and history of the subject.

The 48-year-old science writer has a master's degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University and has written for many publications. As such, she has come in contact with many scientists from different fields and that is utilized in the book.

I approached this book thinking I knew more about the subject than I found I did. There was so much to learn and, as such, so much I can't remember, but have an idea what is out there.

Essentially the book is about the human “electrome' a term only defined in 2016. There are two other principle “omes” recently discovered. The human 'genome', which refers to all the human genes, was 'solved' to international and enduring fanfare in 2003. The human 'microbiome' term, referring to all the microbiota than inhabit humans, was coined in 2001.

The author takes us on the controversial electrome journey from the last couple of decades of the 18th century to the present. The science for this particular area of study has had a continual battle over the centuries with the prevalence of quackery, and dismissal and hostility from scientists, which still seems to persist.

Maybe the most important concept, now largely accepted, is the existence of “ion channels” or passageways in and out of individual cells. These allow the movement of ions of sodium, potassium and other substances (probably no evolutionary coincidence that most are present in seawater) with different electric charges to move in and out of cells, essentially moving energy.

This determines how the cells behave and what they will do. The most important function in the process is the creation of tissue and where that will occur.

Genes will determine whether one has blue or brown eyes. When and where they are placed in development and growth is a product of the activity of the cells and what tissue they are building.

The two 18th century scientists she starts with are Alessandro Volta and Luigi Galvani, both Italian scientists. She describes the fury of their academic competition to discredit and one up each other. While Galvani's views seemed to lose at the time, both proved to have levels of validity. Adee goes into considerable detail following the battles of “papers” from the two perspectives.

I admit to getting confused (and I don't blame the author) for what discovery was on the right track and what wasn't down through the decades following these two pioneers.

Early experimentation revolved around shocking frogs' muscles with electric current. She points out that at various times local frog populations suffered with so many giving their lives for science and that has continued, if not to the present day, not far in the past.

The apparent 'magic' discovered by shocking live cells lent itself to a lot of 'snake oil' type products and treatments. As I mentioned that has dogged this whole area of scientific exploration. At various times people were getting shocked and “cured” or not. The quackery seemed most intrigued with Galvani's work, which made it less appealing to “real” scientists down through the first decades of the 19th century.

Meanwhile Volt's proto-battery was getting lots of meaningful use.

And the author uses one of these ideas in the “lead” to the book. After a long persistent effort, she was allowed to try a program where a mild electric current through her brain was used to turn her from an “ordinary person” into an expert military sniper.

It was part of an advanced U.S. military program and it worked on her. From that, several other skills, including mathematics, were believed to be enhanced.

However, she points out, that positive results, did not occur with everybody, nor were people positively enhanced in all. While she starts the book with the brilliant shooting display, she concludes her book, that is doesn't consistently work.

I found some of her chronology and dating, or lack of it, occasionally confusing.

The author uses some delightful and humorous turns of phrase...”a letter stuffed to the margins with indignation.” Or so and so scientist “dispatched the usual complement of frogs.”



She says the consequences “would be staggering” if it became possible to manipulate bio-electricity at its source. It could mean fixing our biology.

Galvani, an anatomist claimed that the body is animated by a kind of electricity. Volta, a physicist and more outwardly ambitious for fame, was incensed, not unrelated to the low stature of biology. He is credited with inventing the battery.

At that time electricity was a novice and magical, “immaterial fluid”. There were three kinds of electricity imagined inside living beings but not recognized. Those studying electricity were called “electricians”.

And a comment of the times (then maybe still) by biographer: “He (Galvani) had not the intense desire for publicity that causes smaller men to rush into print with their embryonic discoveries the moment they get their first distant glimpse of a new truth.”

It was with frogs that bio-electricity was first demonstrated with a wire from the nerve to the muscle promoting movement of a frog's leg.

However, through the 19th century electricity's marvels focussed on telegraphs, electric lights and other civilization transformations, not the miniscule of bio-electricity. And while Galvani was eventually vindicated, few followed him in the field.

The author gives generous mention to the Leyden jar one of the earliest of capacitors capable of storing static electricity. From its invention mid-18th century it was used in experiments as a source of electricity.

The part electricity plays in nerves animating movement and the senses came comparatively early. In the last 20 years more complex and instrumental contributions of bio-electricity have been discovered. Investigation has gone beyond organs to cells, their mitochondria and to electrical molecules. And even before this, in the 1960s, the field of neuroscience was born.

The anatomy of a nerve cell (neuron) includes its body, short protuberances called dendrites and they bring in messages and the outgoing messages are carried by longer protuberances, axons.

The body has about 86 billion neurons, many in the brain but others in different parts of the body. A billion may be involved in a single movement.The afferent system brings information and news in and the efferent system conveys the response.

There has been a consensus from about 1940, that differently charged ions are the main agents of electrical transmission. Sodium and potassium ions seem to be the main ones.

The flow of ions in and out of a cell can be 10,000 to 100,000 per millisecond, so many, real small and real fast. Chemical and electrical aspects are controlled by a membrane's voltage. This is responsible for every sensation, motion, emotion and heartbeat. She describes an “exquisitely coordinated dance of ions through proteins”.

Ion channel drugs are a bedrock of modern medicine.

All creatures and plants use ions to create voltages across their cells whether brains or even nervous systems.

And then there may be the 'bioelectric code' written in ions and ion channels. A code that controls biological processes which manage cell growth and death. It makes and keeps you who you are.

All cell types use the self generated electricity for their range of functions.

Adee writes about advances such as reading the electrical activity of thoughts and how the body communicates with itself.

While the heart beats or does not beat with no variation between, other muscles contract and relax in degrees and variations, a more complex system. They respond to the strength of the messages from the nerves.

Through the 20th century there were increasing efforts to place electrodes deeply in the brain. Shocks were used to modify symptoms of disease such as Parkinson's and it was thought other objectionable disease symptoms could be controlled. While some implants worked and some did not the brain tended to protect itself from the foreign bodies and cancel or reject them. In addition, it was not possible to imagine which would work on who and what else would be effected.

It was discovered that different skills were manifestations of neurons learning how to work together.

The author points out that reactivating muscles after an accident seems impressive to an onlooker. Maybe more importantly and more complex is the feedback of sensation. While onlookers may be impressed by a paraplegic standing up or walking, the patient's preference is more likely control of bowel movement and the ability to perceive bed sores.

In the U.S. there is an ongoing battle between researchers desires and what the FDA will allow. This may surround the idea of brain interface, but a sobering consideration is that not much is known about how the brain works.

Her book has a chapter that deals with healing, particularly of the spinal cord along with political, moral, financial and health considerations. While frogs or mice can be dispatched prolifically, few things that can be called an experiment (not study) can be done with humans.

A key concept is that the body is not composed of “individual cells”, but “huge assemblies” organized into cooperating tissues and organs. Cancer is when a rogue cell, ceases cooperating and does its own thing. She suggested this might be the 'default state' of cells.

A symptom of injuries is electrical current escaping from the injury. This attracts cells to the area with the appropriate tools to deal with the injury. As repair occurs the associated electrical field begins to fade.

Organs and even cells can be seen as batteries with voltage.

Bone growth occurs when the bone is stressed through activity. Bone cells generate charges in response and this enhances bone growth. Also voltages increase at break sites to help healing.

This understanding has led to efforts to apply more electricity to speed healing. Bed sores is one of the foci for this kind of healing and it seems the rate can be almost doubled.

This kind of connection is linked to epigenetics as a system effected by electricity operating in response to an immediate need, to enhance the normal genetic response which is slower.

There is such a thing as strong and weak injury current. It is strongest when young and decreases with age.

Figuring out the “right ion channels to switch on and off” could do more than heal, she says, but instead regrowing a new part to replace the injured.

Early in the 21st century there was a realization that not just nerve cells send messages, but other cells use electrical communication. It may be key to how the body is made and organized.This may be the key to how cancer spreads and the body is “unmade”. These are big ideas about big questions.

The big excitement over stem cells at the turn of the century has somewhat faded with the increasing knowledge of the part played by electricity. Stem cells are malleable because they have no charge.

Both sperm and ova produce huge amounts of electrical energy. The relevant ion channels, notably calcium, increase.

Different cells have different voltages. Nerve and skin are about -70, where bone is -90, fat -50 and stem cells near 0. The charge of cell membranes at the resting point tis what defines their cellular identity. Because stem cells are at 0 they can become any other type of cell, but once a cell type is selected it does not change. During embryo development “electrical signals appear to encode the locations of anatomical features”.

From the beginning, before nerves, embryonic cells are communicating electrically and gaining each other's information because they are in contact. The “membrane voltage carried information and the gap junctions formed the body-wide network and it and not the nervous system sent the information around the body.”

“The genetic code governs heritable traits, the bioelectric code was how the body told itself about its form.”

Changing membrane voltage was enough, in experiments, to relocate an eye in a frog. It seems the same manipulation could work in humans while they are still in the womb. Some growth can continue longer. Children between 7 and 11 can often regrow a severed part of a digit. This is unlikely to occur with medical intervention and bandaging.

Human liver renews about every two months and intestinal lining every seven days. Parts that renew do so on a longer scale as one ages.

There is professional rivalry between geneticists and bio-electricity researchers over which aspect is responsible for what.

There is a growing belief that bio-electricity may turn genes on and off.

The hope and fear that surrounded stem cells at the beginning of the century may fade with bioelectric medicine.

While cancer cells are normal cells run amok, now in some cases normal cells can turn cancerous then back to normal. It seems that cancer cells have a different “electrical signature” presenting a way for early diagnosis. Genetic defects may have caused the cancer, but bio-electrics seems to determine whether it grows or metastasizes

The connection between ion channels and cancer is suggesting a way forward for cancer treatment.

Many “types of ion channels may be working together in a complicated synchrony.”

The author describes cancer as “a failure of communications” effecting the cell's ability to be part of a normal living system.

Voltage changes were not a sign of cancer. They controlled it. Bio-electricity overrides genetics.

“Many devices and technologies are now being recruited to interface with the body's electricity for regeneration, wound healing, and cancer treatment, and they join the ion-channel blockers as the new vanguard of medicines.”

With the body response to implanted metals other materials have to be found that will conduct a charge and it seems some plastics may do it. Also coral, a biological material, may offer some solution for bone grafts and implants.

Another contribution may be merger of pharmaceuticals and electricity.....electroceuticals.

A lot of cures and repairs could be facilitated if we can convince cells to work on that instead of doing whatever else they are doing, she says, “living programmable organisms” in effect.

Non invasive wearables is another option of electroceuticals.

Getting people (test pilots) and official permission to test invasive technology is an obstacle.

Ion channel drugs were used long before ion channels were discovered but they were used because they worked. They include nicotine, alcohol, licorice and anesthesia.

There is a need to bring different scientific perspectives together...a science polymath. It wouldn't be the polymath who knew all the science there was to know 250 years ago, but somebody who could bring the silos of specialized knowledge together. MIT now offers a doctorate in being a polymath who can talk across disciplines in the language they understand.

The advancement of the science of bioelectricty was late because the instruments to study it have just recently been developed, she says.

Adee is less worried about cybernetic takeover of humanity because biology is being revealed as a more subtle and complicated potential than imagined.