A Molecule Away from Madness
Tales of the Hijacked Brain
by Sara Manning Peskin
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 08 Feb 2022 | Archive Date 31 Jan 2022
Riveting stories of the brain on the brink, from an acclaimed cognitive neurologist.
Our brains are the most complex machines known to humankind, but they have an Achilles heel: the very molecules that allow us to exist can also sabotage our minds. Here are gripping accounts of unruly molecules and the diseases that form in their wake.
A college student cannot remember if she has eaten breakfast. By dinner, she is strapped to a hospital bed, convinced she is battling zombies. A man planning to propose marriage instead becomes violently enraged, gripped by body spasms so severe that he nearly bites off his own tongue. One after another, poor farmers in South Carolina drop dead from a mysterious epidemic of dementia.
With an intoxicating blend of history and intrigue, Sara Manning Peskin invites readers to play medical detective, tracing each diagnosis from the patient to an ailing nervous system. Along the way, Peskin entertains with tales of the sometimes outlandish, often criticized, and forever devoted scientists who discovered it all.
Peskin never loses sight of the human impact of these conditions. Alzheimer’s Disease is more than the gradual loss of a loved one; it can be a family’s multigenerational curse. The proteins that abound in every cell of our bodies are not simply strings of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon; they are the building blocks of our personalities and relationships. A Molecule Away from Madness is an unputdownable journey into the deepest mysteries of our brains.
About the Author: Sara Manning Peskin is an assistant professor of clinical neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"Sara Manning Peskin is remarkably skillful at breaking down complex neuroscience into easily digestible components and explaining the mysteries of the brain with profound elegance. Rarely has a writer been able to depict the devastating consequences of neurologic illness through such poignant patient stories. Like Oliver Sacks before her, she is sure to inspire a generation of future neurologists, neuroscientists, and students of the brain." - Orly Avitzur, MD, MBA, president of the American Academy of Neurology
"Sara Manning Peskin’s elegant, empathic portrait of the vulnerable brain is both absolutely terrifying and wonderfully optimistic." - Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 10 members
This book is an incredible dive into how our DNA can impact diseases, especially as they relate to our brain.
The author does an excellent job teaching readers
about the discovery of genetic mutations that can lead to diseases like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s through a series of stories. I found each of the stories to be just the right length to be informative enough to understand the full story while also not diving too deep to overwhelm the reader. Each story gives enough closure to wrap up the point nicely, but also piques your curiosity with enough details to arm you if your wanted to do a deeper dive.
One particularly interesting case follows a woman named Lauren through her “walking dead disease” where she is convinced that she is living in the TV show The Walking Dead for months. In this anecdote the author explains that in many cases, doctors and nurses assumed she was using the drug PCP. She then includes information about the creation and medical uses for PCP in the 60s and its evolution to a street drug.
I would highly recommend this read for anyone with a curious mind about the ways our minds can change over time.
As I read A Molecule Away from Madness, it reminded me of my favorite medical narrative writer, Berton Roueché. In fact, it was his book “The Incurable Wound” that I had purchased at my elementary school’s book fair that awakened my interest in medical history.
The author uses a simple formula to introduce the reader to the miscreant molecules that alter the brain chemistry and cause disease. She uses narratives to present the patient the way that he or she was then details how the disease affected this person. Once the patient has a diagnosis, she delves into the history of the scientist(s) who discovered the disease in question and the cure, if any. I was particularly interested in the history of the disease but I also found the patient narratives compelling.
I highly recommend this is a book for anyone with an interest medical history and/or neurology.