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Editorial: Dr. Eric Kandel Visits USC

EDITORIAL | 2007 | Visiting Faculty

Published onFeb 20, 2007
Editorial: Dr. Eric Kandel Visits USC

On February 20th, 2007, Dr. Eric Kandel came to visit the University of South Carolina (USC) to take part in several presentations and discussions about his groundbreaking work on the biological basis of memory. Dr. Kandel is a Senior Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Columbia University in New York. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, along with Drs. Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard, for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system ("Medicine 2000"). Their work is a paragon of scientific inquiry, and a grand example of what reductionism in biology can tell us regarding the interaction of genes and environment.

During Kandel's time in Columbia, SC, he gave a lecture on the basis of memory, and took part in a discussion on the legal implications of our biological knowledge of memory, including its faults. On the 21st, Kandel took part in a small question-and-answer discussion with students out of USC's Honors Program. While both public discussions were exceptional, for a select group of students, Kandel's private discussion with them was something to be remembered, and the bulk of this report will be devoted to that discussion.

First, however, one must have an understanding of why Kandel's research was so groundbreaking. Dr. Kandel gave the Charles W. Knowlton lecture at USC on February 20th, which was entitled "We Are What We Remember: Memory and the Biological Basis of Individuality." To a packed crowd, Kandel first took the audience through a history of modern neuroscience, beginning with Franz Joseph Gall and the development of phrenology. Kandel emphasized that while Gall's idea of reading the bumps on the scalp to determine mental function is obviously discredited, many of his underlying assumptions have been borne out in modern neuroscience, specifically the idea of localizing mental function. This was contrasted with the later work of Jean Pierre Flourens, a French physiologist who was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to investigate Gall's claims. While Flourens found that the general removal of certain areas of cortex did cause a loss of higher mental function, he was unable to find a specific localization of memory and higher cognition, leading him to claim that mental processes, including memory, were diffuse throughout the brain, not localized as Gall had proposed. These two competing ideas have run throughout modern psychology and neuroscience even to this day.

Kandel detailed in his lecture the study of Aplysia, a genus of sea slug, which Kandel and his colleagues used to study the biochemical pathways associated with short-term and long-term memory. This research, conducted throughout the 1970s, eventually discovered serotonin's relationship to cAMP during behavioral sensitization. They found that cAMP was produced during sensitization, which caused the formation of short-term memory. Kandel and colleagues later found that cAMP-dependent protein kinase (PKA) was activated in the biochemical pathway triggered by cAMP, which has been found to regulate a certain potassium channel, suggesting the involvement of serotonin with physiological changes in existing synaptic connections during short-term memory. Later, Kandel's lab used mice to research the basis of long-term memory (using the Barnes maze and spatial memory), and found that PKA activates cAMP response element binding protein (CREB), a protein involved in transcription, which results in the increase of synaptic connections with other neurons (Kandel, Schwartz and Jessel 2000).

Kandel then discussed this research in context of the theoretical basis of localized mental function, as well as the rise of cognitive neuroscience, and what this may mean for neurodegenerative diseases that affect memory, such as Alzheimer's disease.

The next morning on the 21st, a small group of students had a Q&A session with Dr. Kandel. The students asked many interesting questions, which Kandel handled with his immense perspective on history and science. Many of the questions asked dealt with issues that undergraduates with an interest in science deal with. Kandel discussed his own undergraduate experience at Harvard, where he studied history with an interest in psychoanalysis. He states in his autobiography, "In Search of Memory," that he wanted to find the biological basis of the Superego, Ego and Id (Kandel 2006). In the student discussion, he stated that "undergraduate experiences are fantastically formative," and indeed, he would not have written on certain subjects if he did not think like an historian. One can certainly read "Principles of Neural Science," the first textbook on neuroscience that Kandel still edits, and see the kind of perspective he brings to neuroscience and the thrill of discovery.

This kind of multidisciplinary thinking was reflected in Kandel's thoughts on art, which he expressed in some detail. In fact, Dr. Kandel actually co-authored an article entitled "A Parallel Between Radical Reductionism in Science and in Art" (Kandel and Mack, 2003) which discussed how artists (particularly J.M.W. Turner, Mark Rothko, and Jean Magnano-Bollinger) and scientists sometimes use similar methodologies in trying to come ever closer to discovering truth.

Kandel discussed many personal aspects of his life during illustrative stories that spanned his career. He discussed a scientist's relationship to their family, and how one can "stop worrying about weaknesses" and concentrate on strengths. He discussed, as he also does in "In Search of Memory," his relationship with his wife and the support that it provided him throughout his scientific career.

Perhaps most applicable to young scientists was Kandel's discussion about the competitive aspect of science. He discussed competition in science, and how one must understand his- or herself well enough to have a good career; in addition, a scientist must view a career as a long-term trajectory. Essentially, one must view each degree, and each job in a new place or university, as one learning experience out of a lifetime of learning.

Towards the end of the hour, Kandel touched on memory briefly, stating that "memory is a very suggestible, influenceable mental process," and expressed hope in the future of neuroscience, discussing the unresolved problems of biology; he likened the biology of the mind in the 21st century to the biology of the gene at the beginning of the 20th. He again renewed his hope in cognitive neuroscience, which he expressed in his Nobel acceptance lecture (Kandel 2000), and the integration of both cognitive and molecular approaches to elucidate the nature of mind and cognition. This concluded his time with the students.

Finally, Kandel was part of a discussion on the larger implications of our current knowledge of memory formation, especially concerning the judicial system and eyewitness testimony. This important ethical discussion capped off an incredibly informative few days with Dr. Kandel.


  • Kandel, E. R. (2000). "The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage: A Dialog Between Genes and Synapses." Nobel Lecture, December 8, 2000.

  • Kandel, E. R. (2006). "In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind." New York: W. W. Norton.

  • Kandel, E. R., Mack, S. (2003). "A Parallel Between Radical Reductionism in Science and in Art." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1001 (1), 272-294.

  • Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., Jessel, T. M. (2000). "Principles of Neural Science, Fourth Edition." McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.

  • "Medicine 2000." (20 March 2007).

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