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A Memorable Memoir: The Moving Life of Eric Kandel
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045
When it was publicly announced that Eric Kandel would be awarded the Nobel Prize for his research in Aplysia, his telephone was predictably abuzz. The neuroscientist was surprised, however, by the number of phone calls from Vienna, informing him that Austria was pleased to have another Nobel laureate. He reminded his well-wishers that it was an American Nobel Prize. In his 2006 book, The Search for Memory, Kandel expertly integrated the history of neuroscience, his own research career, and his personal life to tell a story that is part memoir and part science. Kandel’s fascinating, full life is an example of resilience and flexibility; he changed memories of childhood trauma into a passion for discovery, was capable of switching easily between levels of analysis and animal models, and developed a new model organism for neuroscience despite the risk of failure.
Sixty years prior to winning the Nobel Prize, Kandel lived in anti-Semitic Vienna, Austria. At that time, Austria was not as proud to claim Kandel as a citizen due to his Jewish faith. Kandel was only nine years old when Hitler entered Austria, and he would forever remember the disturbing events during the year that followed. Unable to immediately emigrate to the U.S due to immigration laws, he and his family lived in Nazi-ruled Austria for an entire year. His book details vivid memories of being temporarily evicted from his family home and returning to find it looted by neighbors, as well as being rejected from his non-Jewish classmates.
The emotionally-charged memories of that year stirred a curiosity that followed Kandel,even after moving to the United States and progressing through secondary school; Kandel thus decided to quench his curiosity by studying the events more deeply at the collegiate level. Yet the answers he found in his studies of Modern European History and Literature at Harvard did not satiate this curiosity. He wondered why these memories from his childhood were so rich so many years later. While a junior at Harvard, he met the parents of his then-girlfriend Anna Kris, who were highly regarded psychoanalysts. Fascinated by his discussions with them, he decided to pursue a career as a psychoanalyst, impulsively signing up for a chemistry summer course. Though the relationship did not last, it changed the course of his intellectual development, leading him to medical school where he would be exposed to the biological basis of medicine and become determined to find the biological substrates of Freud’s id, ego, and superego.
However, during medical school he began research in the lab of neurobiologist Harry Grundfest, leading him to conclude his questions were too broad. He also questioned the methodology used in this lab. Though the goal was to evaluate the electrical properties of dendrites, researchers used evoked responses that activated thousands of neurons in the mammalian cortex. He realized a new animal model or technology was required to adequately study individual neurons, and found it in the papers of Stephen Kuffler, who used a crayfish so that he could see individual dendrites and record from them directly.
With these ideas in mind, Kandel graduated from medical school and headed to the NIH intent on learning about memory, once again influenced by the intense memories of his troubling experiences in Vienna. “How did terror sear the banging door of our apartment into the molecular and cellular fabric of my brain with such permanence?” he questioned (Kandel, 2006, p. 6). Yet Kandel was pragmatic, realizing he could not answer these questions without first studying the molecular and cellular basis of the brain. Influenced by Kuffler’s use of the crayfish, Kandel sought an animal model that would meet his needs. At that time, it was uncommon to consider alternative models, and his action evoked disapproval from colleagues and advisors. He finally settled upon the Aplysia, the giant marine snail, due to its small number of unusually large neurons. Despite disapproval from the scientific community, he risked his career and moved to Paris with his wife Denise to work with one of the only two people who studied Aplysia at the time.
This proved influential for the scientific community. Upon returning to the United States, Kandel brought with him knowledge of this new model. Other scientists soon joined him in utilizing Aplysia. He and colleagues first studied the biochemical pathways of individual neurons, eventually expanding this research to examine communication between motor, sensory, and interneurons that facilitate Aplysia’s short-term memory. He discovered the mechanisms of sensitization and habituation, as well as the differences between long-term and short-term memory of this behavior.
Over the years, Kandel has proven to be an example of a great scientist. The man who demonstrated plastic change in Aplysia exemplified pragmatic flexibility in his own life. Despite studying literature and language for most of his life, he successfully transitioned to medical school. Rather than stubbornly sticking to status quo methodology that wasn’t working, he had the insight toseek out a new animal model. He also was humble enough to admit his initial goal of studying traumatic memories was too complex without knowing the molecular basis of neurons. Finally, though some researchers have actively pursued the Nobel Prize to feed an egotistical quest for glory, the book shows that scientists such as Kandel are driven by an intrinsic passion for learning.
Kandel’s ability to excel in variety of disciplines is also unique. He excelled at Harvard in his historical literature studies and pursued myriad levels of analysis in science. He studied the molecular basis of memory, and expanded this work to understand cellular communication between neurons, eventually switching to circuitry-based studies in mice. His ability to conceptualize ideas from the perspective of a psychoanalyst to minute molecular pathways is an ability all scientists should emulate, taking time to understand how their experiments fit into a larger picture and the underlying mechanisms of complex behaviors.
Kandel’s life imparts an important lesson of the profound impact one scientific proposal can have on the course of scientific discovery. Though he is known for Aplysia, he also wrote an impactful review suggesting approaching science from a reductionist point of view, which ¾ uses simple animal models to elucidate complex phenomena. He encouraged scientists like the well-known Joseph LeDoux to examine the cellular mechanisms of learned fear in the rat amygdala. Kandel himself was influenced by his own paper years later, when he eventually returned to mammalian models and used LeDoux’s methods to examine learned fear in mice.
Not only did Kandel have an impact on the scientific community, but the respect he garnered because of his innovative work allowed him unique influence in society. Austria accepted a “mantle of injured innocence” despite the atrocities that occurred in Vienna (Kandel, 2006, p. 406). Kandel (2006) states the country did not experience “soul-searching and cleansing after the war” (Kandel, pp. 405). Years after, Kandel used his influence to organize a symposium in Austria and met with officials to educate Austrian citizens on the role their country played during the Holocaust. Kandel, whose interest in memory originated in part from his surprisingly vivid recollection of traumatic experiences in Vienna, now works to remind Austria of these widely-forgotten events.
Kandel, E. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of the mind. Castle House: New Yok, NY.
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