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THE UNREAL WORLD

That's why they call it science fiction

July 03, 2006|Marc Siegel | Special to The Times

"Android Apocalypse," Sci Fi Channel, June 24

The premise

THIS made-for-TV movie stars Scott Bairstow as Jute, one of the few humans left in a world run by androids. After killing an android in a bar fight, Jute is sentenced to a prison deep in the wasteland. Another android, DeeCee (played by Joseph Lawrence), is responsible for bringing him to the prison camp, but instead helps him escape. As they spend time together, DeeCee becomes more and more human-like, which is ultimately explained by the fact that android brains are made using human brain fluid. In his growing empathy, DeeCee even goes so far as to allow his hand to be amputated to free Jute from the shackle that binds them together.

The medical questions

IS the secret to human consciousness found in the fluid deep in our brains? Are our nerves also protected and nourished by this cerebrospinal fluid -- from the brain all the way to our fingertips?

The reality

THE question of whether androids can become free-thinking moralistic human beings has been addressed in Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot," in the movie classics "The Terminator" and "Terminator 2," and in the character of Data in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," who is notably one of the most human characters aboard ship. Although a novel idea in an entertaining film, the concept of robbing the cerebrospinal fluid from the human brain to provide the animating force in an android nervous system seems absurd. For starters, it would have to be the juice of emotion and intellect in humans -- which it clearly is not.

Cerebrospinal fluid lines the brain and spinal cord and provides a buffer for the brain against injury. It also cleans the brain, removing waste products, while carrying simple nutrients such as proteins and glucose obtained from the blood. It's far from the signature principle behind the mind or the soul. Some theorists maintain that the secret to consciousness may lie with the complex neurochemicals in the neurosynapses between nerves -- though there are many other scientists and religious philosophers who think the essence of the human spirit will never be captured by a chemical.

Real cerebrospinal fluid is colorless, not yellow as shown in this movie -- though, of course, yellow is more dramatic. DeeCee bleeds this yellow fluid when his hand is cut off, but in humans, the fluid stops at the spine.

All human cells -- including nerves -- are nourished by red blood bearing oxygen.

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Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and an associate professor of medicine at New York University's School of Medicine. He is also the author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear." In the Unreal World, he explains the medical facts behind the media fiction.

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