Understanding our bodies

The human body is amazingly complex. Sometimes, when we try to understand how our bodies work, we think in terms of a series of systems. We have a skeleton, which provides structural strength so we can stand, walk and engage in various forms of work. We have a muscular system that binds the bones together and provides the ability to move. Muscles are very specialized tissues that can contract and expand in response to electrical signals that are delivered through a very complex system of nerves. We have specialized muscles such as the heart and the diaphragm which operate without our conscious thought. We also have muscles that respond to our thoughts and desires. But we are more than a collection of systems. Our bodies have ways of communicating and coordinating actions and reactions within a complete system. It has taken millennia of careful observation to come to a certain level of understanding of how the human body works, and it will take many more generations to come to an even more complete understanding.

In literature, you can find evidence in the evolution of human thinking and understanding of how our bodies work. The ancients observed that living beings breathe in and out. Those who have died do not breathe. That distinction led to the observation that breathing was very important. In the ancient forms of the languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, the word for spirit and breath are the same. It was believed that the spirit that animates life was literally inhaled and exhaled. We see remnants of those linguistic references in modern English. We are “inspired” - literally filled with spirit. We describe the process of inhaling a foreign substance as aspiration, again with the base of the word spirit incorporated into the term. When someone does, we sometimes say that the person expired.

As people learned more about our bodies, we became fascinated with our circulatory system. We learned to feel our heartbeat and to detect it through the pulsing of blood in arteries located in several locations in our bodies. We understood that an accident that severed an artery or caused excessive bleeding could be fatal. Physicians developed tools, such as a stethoscope to enable them to listen more precisely to the heart. The presence or absence of a heartbeat became a way of determining life and death.

As physicians developed systems to assist the body with breathing and heart function, they discovered that just breathing and having a heart beat did not make a person capable of full life. The process of measuring brain function became an important factor in understanding a person’s capability of recovering from trauma.

Recently, when my wife was undergoing treatment for an abnormal heart rhythm, two specialists explained their part of her treatment in rather simple terms. The cardiologist described himself as a plumber, who studied and treated issues relating to the movement of fluid, arteries and veins and possible obstructions and problems. The electrophysiologist described his as the work of an electrician. He prescribed and practiced the parts of medicine that seek to understand and adjust the electrical signals of the heart. What we discovered is that these simplifications are helpful in understanding, but tell only part of the story. Both specialists are also chemists, who use medicines to affect desired outcomes. And, as we discovered, the chemical side of the equation is incredibly complex and some of it is discovered by trial and error on each patient. The practice of medicine is an interdisciplinary endeavor and although various physicians develop specialties, the body is an interconnected system and it does no good to treat only part of the body.

Heart rhythm and its irregularities have been the focus of many studies and the development of many modalities of treatment. The natural system for regulating the rhythm of the heart’s contractions functions both as an electrical system, with a network of servers sending electrical signals and a chemical system with various chemicals communicating messages throughout the body.

In the early years of cardiology, physicians were limited mostly to chemical tools to treat irregular rhythm. A category of drugs, called beta-blockers was discovered that, when administered in appropriate doses, could affect the regularity of the rhythm of the heart. It took many years for doctors to understand that irregular rhythm had many causes, so treatment of the chemical causes and chemical signals took years to develop. Not all drugs had the same results with all patients. A life-saving drug for one patient might cause an adverse reaction in another. Through trial and error, physicians became more skilled in chemical treatments.

Then, in 1958, the first implantable electric pacemaker was installed in a patient. The tiny box emitted regular electrical signals that signaled the heart to contract. Because the device was sending regular shocks to the muscle, the muscle responded by beating in a steady rhythm. Ince that first implantation, pacemakers have become smaller and more reliable. These days about 1.25 million pacemakers are fitted each year. New devices are far more sophisticated than the early ones. Rather than simply jolting the heart tissue into action when it fails to beat by itself, implantable devices now monitor and report on heart conditions and communicate through telephone communications with health care professionals. Although current models of pacemakers tap directly into the heart, doctors believe that in the future devices will be able to tap directly into nerves that surround the heart enhancing and reporting natural electrical functions. The technology of the wires and probes used is rapidly advancing, providing more reliable and longer-lasting devices. Battery technology means that newer devices last longer and require less intervention by physicians.

We are, however, only at the beginning of our understanding of how our hearts function. Although we have treatments that can restore quality of life and extend the lives of people, the potential of implantable bioelectric devices to take into account and respond to natural changes in our bodies is significant.

There is much that remains to be discovered and all things human will be affected by our discoveries. Our language will shift and we will develop new ways of speaking of life and death, health an illness.

I can imagine the day when going to the doctor is much less a process of receiving a prescription and taking a medicine than one of downloading and algorithm and exchanging data. Our world is changing and we are learning to understand more of it.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!