The Angel and the Assassin (Hardcover)

The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine

By Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Ballantine Books, 9781524799175, 320pp.

Publication Date: January 21, 2020

List Price: 28.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


A thrilling story of scientific detective work and medical potential that illuminates the newly understood role of microglia—an elusive type of brain cell that is vitally relevant to our everyday lives.
“The rarest of books: a combination of page-turning discovery and remarkably readable science journalism.”—Mark Hyman, MD, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?

Until recently, microglia were thought to be merely the brain’s housekeepers, helpfully removing damaged cells. But a recent groundbreaking discovery revealed them to be capable of terrifying Jekyll and Hyde behavior. When triggered—and anything that stirs up the immune system in the body can activate microglia—they can morph into destroyers, impacting a wide range of issues from memory problems and anxiety to depression and Alzheimer’s. Under the right circumstances, however, microglia can be coaxed back into being angelic healers, able to repair the brain in ways that help alleviate symptoms and hold the promise to one day prevent disease.

A fascinating behind-the-scenes account of this cutting-edge science, The Angel and the Assassin also explores the medical implications of these game-changing discoveries. Award-winning journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa began her investigation with a personal interest—when diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder years ago, she was convinced there was something physical going on in her brain as well as her body, though no doctor she consulted could explain how the two could be interacting in this way. With the compassion born of her own experience, she follows practitioners and patients on the front lines of treatments that help to “reboot” microglia—from neurofeedback and intermittent fasting to transcranial magnetic stimulation and gamma light flicker therapy. She witnesses patients finding significant relief from pressing symptoms—and at least one stunning recovery—offering new hope to the tens of millions who suffer from mental, cognitive, and physical health issues.

Proving once and for all the biological basis for the mind-body connection, the discovery of the true role of microglia stands to rewrite psychiatric and medical texts as we know them. Hailed as “riveting,” “stunning,” and “visionary,” The Angel and the Assassin offers us a radically reconceived picture of human health and promises to change everything we thought we knew about how to heal ourselves.

About the Author

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is the author of three previous books exploring the intersection of neuroscience, immunology, and emotion: Childhood Disrupted, which was a finalist for the 2016 Books for a Better Life award, The Last Best Cure, and The Autoimmune Epidemic. For her written contributions to the field of immunity, she has received the AESKU award and the National Health Information Award, which recognizes the nation’s best magazine articles on health. Jackson Nakazawa has appeared on Today, NPR, NBC News, and ABC News, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Health Affairs, Aeon, More, Parenting, AARP Magazine, and Glamour, and has been featured on the cover of Parade as well as in Time and USA Today. She blogs for Psychology Today and HuffPost. Jackson Nakazawa has been the recipient of writing-in-residence fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony. She lives with her family in Maryland.

Praise For The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine

The Angel and the Assassin is a fascinating deep dive into unsung heroes (and villains) inside our skulls: microglia, immune cells in the brain implicated in everything from depression to Alzheimer’s disease to psychosis. This fast-paced investigation presents readers with a behind-the-curtain look at science's quest to unlock the mysteries of these tiny molecules—with huge ramifications for our understanding of brain health and illness. Donna Jackson Nakazawa has a journalist’s eye for a story, a scholar’s understanding of the research, and a patient’s appreciation for how high the stakes truly are.” —Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire

“In a stunning show of precision and heart, Jackson Nakazawa offers a captivating, page-turning story of scientific discoveries that overturn centuries of medical dogma and fundamentally reshape psychiatry, medicine, and the treatment of mental and physical illnesses. The Angel and the Assassin offers extraordinary promise and heralds hope in a time of skyrocketing rates of ‘microglial’ diseases—including depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, and addiction. It is paradigm-shifting reading for us all!”—Christina Bethell, PhD, MPH, director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative and professor at Johns Hopkins University

The Angel and the Assassin is the rarest of books: a combination of page-turning discovery and remarkably readable science journalism. It’s a book both to savor and to share.”—Mark Hyman, MD, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?

“I can think of no topic more fascinating or exciting than microglia, the long-misunderstood brain cells whose power over brain health may hold the promise of cure for so many. The Angel and the Assassin is riveting, engaging, and visionary.”—Terry Wahls, M.D., author of The Wahls Protocol

“Engagingly explained and exciting . . . Jackson Nakazawa puts forth a revolutionary new way of thinking about the brain’s immune system and its interactions with immune function in the rest of the body. She calls this the ‘microglial universal theory of disease,’ and the research and emerging treatments based on it have the potential to prevent and relieve depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as diverse autoimmune disorders. Much of the information here was new to me and has made me more optimistic about the future of medicine.”—Andrew Weil, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Eight Weeks to Optimum Health and Healthy Aging

“Understanding the capacity of microglia to both heal and harm the brain is one of the most exciting scientific discoveries in recent memory. Donna Jackson Nakazawa brings this heady story to colorful, page-turning, and accessible life.  I have great hopes for the practical application of what she reveals.”—Amy Myers, MD, New York Times bestselling author of The Autoimmune Solution

“Few nonfiction writers can tell the tale of scientific inquiry so vividly that the reader can feel the excitement of discovery with every word. Donna Jackson Nakazawa is one of those writers, and this book tells the tale of one of the most intriguing and groundbreaking discoveries in all of medicine. The tiny brain cell that forms the center of her story will one day affect all of our lives and the lives of our families, and will transform the way mental illness and the ravages of aging are treated.”—Shannon Brownlee, senior vice president, Lown Institute and author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer