Posted by: SLS | November 8, 2010

Elegance in electricity

I’ve been meaning to devote a post to some very serious thoughts about chemical signaling and nervous system development. I’ve come to think, rather dubiously at the moment, that our nervous systems are a microcosm of a larger network, bootstrapped from cellular organization and differentiation in an electrolytic environment. And this came to me in a lecture about siphonophores.


What is a siphonophore? It is a class of marine invertebrates resembling long and differentiated worms or stretched out jellyfish. The Portuguese Man ‘0 War is probably the best known siphonophore. These creatures appear as one organism, but are actually colonies of many specialized individuals attached along a central relay stem that are so integrated that they can almost be characterized as a single system. They inhabit the vast expanse of middle ocean where there is neither shore or sea floor nor very much light. This is an area inhabited by comparatively few organisms and the siphonophore has radiated to completely fill the niche. The reason I found this important enough to share is because I realized that these creatures are a literal extended nervous system of the ocean, filling the wide stretches of water with chemical signals and information so subtle that I can’t even presume to attempt any guesswork. What does the world of creatures talk about with itself? Nothing premeditated and conscious, but signals are there, to be sure. It came to me then that the functioning of a single organism such as you or I is contingent upon millions of specialized cells, and that these signals for better or for worse keep us alive, moving and reproducing, and that an effort to learn why a set of specialized cells accomplishes or experiences anything is better put towards understanding the signals.

In other words, in my quest to understand muscle fatigue, I think I’ve hit upon something that deserves the brunt of my attention, not only from my earlier post summarizing the Noakes article, but from my tangential and spurious brainstorming aftermath of the siphonophore lecture. It was only too perfect that I soon after read an article by Bret Contreras about differences in male and female athletic training that discussed a limiting point in CNS output that far exceeded the muscular capacity of most women, whereas strong men may dance along this threshold quite regularly during max lifts. The real training may actually be in firing efficacy and adaptations mediated by trophic factors, which are all CNS and endocrine controlled. Taken alone, the idea of training the CNS in athletic training is not much of a stretch, and probably directly addressed by any coach or trainer worth their salt. What truly knocked me off my feet was the realization that our little nervous system is itself only an extension of the larger macro environment of chemical signaling that arguably maintains the symbiosis of all life.

Where would we be without the living electrolytic network? Similarly, where would we be without our nervous system? What should we hold accountable then for the control and ability of the disparate downstream organ systems?

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