I confess I do not know what a miracle is. I have heard about it. I have heard people talking about the birth of a baby as a miracle. Yes, a new life is indeed a miracle. However, unless we first understand the creation process of a new life, it is hard to imagine what a miracle is. Professor William A. Harris, in his new book, “Zero to Birth”, (Princeton University Press, 2022), walks the reader through this process of “how the brain develops from conception to birth and beyond.

He describes how the human embryo’s transformation takes place as the cells continually multiply and proliferate. Illustrating how during the first trimester the human embryo has a tailbud stage just like the frogs do, this is called the neural tube stage. “Human embryos reached this stage at about one month of gestation, when they are still tiny, not much bigger than a Sesame seed.” It was quite an emotional read, trying to imagine how life is created. It is fascinating reading how cells that will become the spine can be identified at such an early stage.

“In all vertebrate animals, cephalisation starts at the time of neural induction, as the front half of the neural plate that will make the brain is already much bigger than the back half that will make the spinal cord.”

He further explains:

“During the first four weeks of gestation the human embryo has a population of thousands of neural stem cells. The neural tube is packed with them and they are rapidly proliferating. Typical new born babies’ brain has about 100 billion neurons so a lot of proliferation is needed.”

Yes, by the time of birth, the human embryo’s brain has over 100 billion neurons. This is astonishing and this is a miracle. Yet, we still lack so much understanding of the human brain. Bill Harris is honest, he admits that we do not know everything. The human brain is still a phenomenon for us. There is so much work to be done yet. I agree with him. The human brain is the new frontier.

During the interview, Professor Harris mentions apoptosis, there is no doubt that “apoptosis is at the heart of many neurodegenerative diseases.” We still have not found the cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer, which means we have still not fully understood apoptosis. Apoptosis refers to a type of cell death. The programmed cell suicide helps control cell numbers. Too many cell deaths are linked to Alzheimer’s and in cancer cells continue to proliferate without dying.

Another reason that brain development and the human mind are such an enigma is that not all development takes place inside the womb. A child’s brain continues to grow in size after birth till the age of seven. The external factors are just as important for the health and development of the brain as genetics. As professor Harris mentions, “It is not until we sense the world outside the womb that the development of the cerebral cortex can be effectively tuned to specific features of the external world.” I have always found the study of the human mind and the human brain so fascinating.

Professor Harris proudly mentions that he is a grandfather, maybe that is where he learned and mastered his storytelling skills. He skillfully introduces the “Zero to Birth” topic in an insightful, thought-provoking, and encyclopedic way. An absorbing story of how we came to understand the inner workings of the brain. A pertinent reminder of the task ahead, a call that we need to invest more of our energies in research and understanding of the human brain and mind. One cannot escape wondering about the miracle taking place inside the womb. The book is aimed at the general reader although students will find it valuable too. We need to continue our endeavour to understand the brain and mind if we are to restore the mind.

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By Khalid

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