Friday, November 13, 2009

Eric Kandel - A Nobel's Life

The 2005 American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Atlanta featured Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel as a speaker. I arrived 30 minutes early to get a seat up front. To my surprise, he was already seated on stage. I turned to the psychiatrist next to me. “Do you think he’ll think I’m crazy if I go up and ask him for his autograph?” I asked. “For my youngest nephew, of course,” I hastily added.

“I mean, here we are, treating stupid athletes like gods, getting their autographs, while we pay no attention to really smart people who benefit society,” I went on to say. “What kind of message does that send to kids?” By now the psychiatrist next to me had figured out I wasn’t exactly a professional colleague. But he was amused and quietly encouraged me to get the autograph.

So I went up and got the autograph – made out to my youngest nephew, of course. Dr Kandel, I hasten to add, was very gracious. I nearly floated back to my seat. “Got it!” I exulted, trying to restrict my end zone dance to just two somersaults.

When I got home, I had the autograph framed and shipped to my nephew, who was so delighted to receive it he immediately hung it up over his bed.

And now to the main event. The following is drawn from an article on mcmanweb:

At five in the morning in October 2000, Denise Kandel fielded a call from Sweden. She didn’t understand what the person was saying except for the last word, "Stockholm." Then the realization dawned. The Nobel committee was on the line, with news for her husband Eric.

Rewind the clock to 62 years before. This time the sound in the middle of the night was that of the breaking glass of shop windows of Jewish businesses. The infamous Kristallnacht was raging across Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria. In Vienna, thugs burst into the Kandel’s apartment and forced young Eric and his brother and parents out into the street. The family returned a week or so later to find their home ransacked and all their valuables gone.

Young Eric and his brother were fortunate enough to find refuge in Brooklyn, months before World War II broke out. His parents got out with mere days to spare. The memory of that night and the horrors of a year under Nazi rule carried a profound impact.

"How could a highly educated and cultured society, a society that at one historical moment nourished the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in the next historical moment sink into barbarism?" Dr Kandel wrote in his Nobel autobiography many years later.

It was a question he took up in his undergraduate pursuits at Harvard. To continue his quest, he decided that psychoanalysis – the intellectual rage of the 1950s -was "perhaps the only approach, to understanding the mind, including the irrational nature of motivation and unconscious and conscious memory."

But a funny thing happened in his last year as a medical student at NYU. He decided to take an elective course in neurobiology at Columbia University. That led to a recommendation to join the NIMH as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of the legendary Wade Marshall, who had mapped out the sensory system in the brain. Suddenly, psychoanalysis seemed like an artifact of an earlier age. The searing questions forged from his childhood in Vienna now found a new medium in modern biology.

"I am struck," he wrote, "as others have been, at how deeply these traumatic events of my childhood became burned into memory."

During his three years at the NIMH, Dr Kandel began his lifelong quest into the biological mechanism of the memory. With colleague Alden Spencer MD, Dr Kandel published a series of articles in the early 1960s documenting their discoveries of the cellular properties of hippocampal neurons. But the two researchers realized these findings alone could not account for how memory was stored. Instead, they began to look into how the neurons were functionally connected. But they needed a simpler place to start than the hippocampus. Dr Spencer turned to the spinal column while Dr Kandel hitched his star to the humble sea snail.

Dr Kandel’s mentors at the NIMH strongly discouraged him from taking such a radically reductionist approach to a complex biological process. Nothing interesting, they argued, could be found in a mere invertebrate, much less have application to higher life forms. But Dr Kandel was young and brash. After ruling out crayfish, lobster, flies, and the nematode, among others, Dr Kandel arrived at the aplysia, a giant marine snail. The animal’s small number of extraordinarily large and distinctively pigmented nerve cells conferred the advantage of easy observation and experimentation.

After completing a two-year psychiatric residency at Harvard, Dr Kandel headed off to Paris for a 16-month tutelage under Ladislav Tauc, one of only two people in the world working on the aplysia. Their collaboration led to a series of articles from the early to mid-1960s. But this was only the beginning.

To be continued ...


Pam said...

Great stuff :) Thanks!

John McManamy said...

Thanks, Pam. People like Eric Kandel are an inspiration.

Anonymous said...


Regarding your recent postings on Eric Kandel. We are soon to be treated to very personal revelations of Carl Jung’s own efforts of his own individuation. I am very excited about the publication of “The Red Book”.

Please see:

The New York Times Magazine
The Holy Grail of the Unconscious
Published: September 16, 2009

“It goes as follows: Man skids into midlife and loses his soul. Man goes looking for soul. After a lot of instructive hardship and adventure — taking place entirely in his head — he finds it again.”

Is this not what we as people who struggle with bipolar fundamentally go through daily?

John McManamy said...

Wow! Many thanks for the heads up, Anonymous. I just started reading the NY Times piece. Amazing ...