TCS Daily


The Biologist of Memory

By Kenneth Silber - April 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Eric R. Kandel has some vivid memories of his childhood in Vienna, Austria. He remembers the family's seductive housekeeper, Mitzi, who ran off to Czechoslovakia with a repairman. He remembers the battery-powered toy car he was given on his ninth birthday. He remembers the Nazi policemen who ordered the family out of its apartment two days later on November 9, 1938 during the Kristallnacht ("night of broken glass") persecutions of Jews across Germany and the recently annexed country of Austria.

Although stripped of most of its possessions, Kandel's family was fortunate in being allowed to leave Austria in 1939. Kandel came of age in Brooklyn, studied history at Harvard, and went to NYU Medical School with the intention of becoming a Freudian psychoanalyst. As a young researcher in the mid-1950s, he hoped to find a biological basis for Freud's concepts of ego, id and superego. Discovering that such a goal was premature at best, he sought to understand the brain at a more basic level -- "one cell at a time," as a mentor put it -- with an emphasis on the mechanisms underlying memory and learning. In 2000, this focus brought him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Kandel's new book In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind absorbingly interweaves personal, scientific and historical subject matter. Kandel combines a recounting of his own research over the decades with a wide-ranging discussion of the history and prospects of neurobiology, psychology and psychiatry. He discusses topics such as winning the Nobel Prize, helping found a biotech firm, and the joys and challenges of a career devoted to laboratory science. He also delves into the grim historical events that marked his childhood and their aftermath in modern Austria.

In the early 1960s, Kandel, suspecting that study of a simple animal could uncover some of the secrets of memory, focused his research on the large marine snail Aplysia. He and his colleagues were able to track changes in the synapses, or gaps between nerve cells, of the mollusk in response to various stimuli. These were the mechanisms by which information was stored during simple forms of learning, such as habituation (when an organism becomes accustomed to a stimulus) and sensitization (when an organism becomes more sensitive to all stimuli following the input of a noxious stimulus).

In later work, Kandel and his colleagues uncovered specific molecules involved in memory and learning. They elucidated the key role of a molecule called cyclic AMP in the synaptic changes of short-term memory, and that of a protein called CREB in the conversion of short-term into long-term memories. Building upon the work with Aplysia, Kandel turned his attention toward more complex animals, for instance studying spatial memory in mice. Such research laid a foundation for current efforts to develop drugs to combat various forms of memory loss in humans, including Alzheimer's disease.

More broadly, Kandel sketches out how molecular biology is poised to transform psychiatry, leading to new treatments for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Although he shifted away from psychoanalytic work early in his career, Kandel believes that the Freudian tradition remains relevant, and indeed could experience a renaissance if its thinking and practices are combined with the findings of biology (something that, as he notes, some Freudians have resisted). Kandel also discusses how biology may shed new light on longstanding philosophical controversies of consciousness and free will.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Kandel traveled to Austria, to get official congratulations from the country he had fled, and to organize a symposium on "Austria's Response to National Socialism." He sought to highlight Austria's active, indeed virulent, role in the Holocaust, and to counter claims that the country was merely Hitler's "first victim." Kandel encountered some hostility and evasion, notably in a confrontation with an eminent Austrian academic, octogenarian geographer Elisabeth Lichtenberger, who blithely rehashed anti-Semitic stereotypes to "explain" the persecution of Jews. However, Kandel was encouraged by positive conversations with Austrian leaders and citizens.

To close on a personal note: Although I have never met Kandel, he was a friend of my late uncle, Dr. Robert Silber, a physician-scientist and fellow Austrian émigré who left Vienna under circumstances similar to those of Kandel. My uncle once predicted, years before the fact, that Kandel would win the Nobel Prize. Bob also told me that Kandel was the "wisest" person he knew -- a notable compliment in that my uncle knew many people.

Kenneth Silber is a TCS contributing writer focused on science, technology and economics.

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2 Comments

Memory Can Indeed Be Enhanced
I have read parts of Kendel’s In Search Of Memory, bought it, and intend to finish. So far I have found him an outstanding teacher, and a very superior, affecting writer and human being.
For the most part he has restricted his scientific studies to basic research. My interest in reading his book was to find out more about why various supplements improve memory, IQ, and mental function in general.
For example, my reading and personal experience supports the idea that continuous daily supplementation with fish oil, particularly when made water soluble by mixing the oil with cottage cheese or yogurt so that it binds to their proteins, continuously improves all aspects of mental functioning, much more so than the mere short term memory enhancing of lecithin. And it did indeed also relieve inflammatory conditions of every sort. For 4 years now I have seen nothing but steady mental and bodily improvement. Mental function is better than ever, and bodily health excellent. So at age 74 I have much to be thankful for.
In my reading (one of Jean Carper’s books) I ran across the story of a psychiatrist, Dr. Puri at Hammersmith Hospital in London, who treated a 28 year old male schizophrenic with 2000 mg of FPA, the major component of fish oil, every day. MRIs showed his ventricles were enlarging, indicating brain shrinkage, and the man was getting madder by the day. After 3 months his behavior improved, after 6 months his brain stopped shrinking, after 18 months his brain was normal size and so was his behavior.
Since so much of the brain is essential fatty acids, and these are in such short supply in our diets, it follows that the lack of EFAs causes physical and mental deterioration, and in making up for this lack there are some welcome reversals and improvements. Dr. Kandel’s work and that of the many other investigators he tells of in his book help explain these results.

Psychoanalytic theory and memory
Psychoanalytic theory has taken a major hit from politically correct sanctions for decades. Despite that, scientists like Kandel believe that there is truly something to Freud's theories about human behavior, theories created in the early 20th century.

The new medical imaging techniques (positron emission tomography melded with "old-fashioned" x-ray CT) will finally allow testing of Freud's theories in people.

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