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There is Life After The Nobel Prize – Eric R. Kandel

by Venky

In August 1996, Eric R. Kandel, one of the most decorated neuroscientists of all time, was busy helping his wife hanging the laundry out to dry in the quaint town of Wellfleet on Cape Cod, when he received a call from Stephen Koslow, a program officer from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Koslow informed Kandel about the successful approval of a grant, and also added in a matter of fact manner that many at the NIMH campus were of the opinion that Kandel would bag the Nobel Prize in the field of medicine.

Much to Kandel’s surprise, and chagrin even, his wife Denise, when informed about his conversation with Koslow, remarked, “I hope not soon.” Denise’s view was that once a distinguished luminary in any field was bestowed with an award representing the pinnacle of its profession, his or her future contribution towards furthering the cause of such profession tended to take a dip. This fact was borne out by a research conducted by Denise herself, in tandem with Robert Merton (a Nobel Laureate incidentally) and Harriet Zuckerman.

Kandel not only managed to win the coveted Nobel Prize (in the year 2000), but also paid immense heed to the warning sounded by Denise. Going about his work in an unrelenting and indefatigable manner, Kandel distinguished himself no end by churning out seminal works in the fields of psychiatry and neuroscience in the years following his achievement. “There Is Life After The Nobel Prize” dwells on some of the cutting edge research conducted by Kandel and his collaborators post 2000. Drawing on the pioneering research done by Aaron Beck, a psychoanalyst at the University of Pennsylvania, Kandel discovered key issues surrounding mental disorders. Also working with Denise on the pernicious ‘gateway effect’, a phenomenon that posited that young people became addicted to drugs in a sequential manner, for example from nicotine and alcohol to cocaine, Kandel using a ‘mouse model’, identified that substances such as cocaine embellished the expression of a gene called “FosB”. This gene resulted in excessive production of the hormone dopamine which in turn exacerbated the addiction phenomenon.

Kandel also collaborated with Scott Small and Elias Papadopoulos, worked on the aspect of normal age related memory loss in trying to understand what differentiated such a memory loss from other related disorders such as Alzheimer’s etc. The trio found that normal age related memory loss took place in the dentate gyrus and that a modification  of a specific molecule associated with cognitive aging, the RbAp48 could mitigate memory loss.

But Kandel’s greatest contribution in the world of neuroscience however lay in the manner in which the doctor communicated to a layman the peculiarities of the human brain. At the behest of television commentator, Charlie Rose, Kandel agreed to appear on PBS for a three part series dubbed the “Charlie Rose Brain Series.” The series was broadcast for 8 years beginning 2009. The series, amongst others, explored the various esoteric features associated with the brain, such as consciousness, free will, perception, cognition, and memory.

In an important segment of the book that resonates with socio cultural ramifications, Kandel writes that injuries to the brain are not restricted to the physical category alone. “In some cases, early social and psychological adversities such as loss of a parent, parental abuse, parental neglect, poverty, or bullying can cause more severe damage to the brain than a physical injury.”

Kandel, in an aesthetic fashion conflates the science of the brain to the field of art. The congruence of neuroscience and art as Kandel illustrates is not a concept that is contemporaneous. Expressionist artists such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele were all influenced to some degree or the other by the works of Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist at the University of Vienna School of Medicine. In fact abstract artists such as Vassily Kandisnky, Piet Mondrian, and Kasimir Malevich, uniformly resorted to methodologies similar to those employed by scientists. Abstract art challenges our brains to create and interpret an image that is ‘fundamentally’ against the kind of images that they have evolved to usually reconstruct. “The abstract artist dismantles many of the building blocks of the brain’s visual processing system.”

The most wistful and poignant section of the book deals with the author’s ‘reconciliation’ with Austria. Kandel and his family fled Austria when he was aged 9 and ultimately settled down in the United States. Kandel, soon after winning the Nobel received a call from the then president of Austria, Thomas Klestil. Klestil in congratulating Kandel, expressed his delight at the fact that yet another Austrian was now a proud Nobel Laureate. Politely demurring, Kandel responded that he was no longer an Austrian but a happy Jewish American. This conversation led to the organizing of a symposium at the University of Vienna. “Austria and National Socialism: Implications for Scholarship in Science and the Humanities” was held in June 2003. This event purveyed to the public, the deleterious impact of the Nazi Rule and the unfortunate complicity that Austria played in the catastrophe. Anton Zeilinger, a renowned quantum physicist and Friedrich Stadler, of the Institute Vienna Circle were appropriated for the symposium.

Kandel was also instrumental in changing the name of the street where the University Platz is located in Austria. Originally named Karl Lueger Platz, the name was subsequently changed to University Platz. Karl Lueger was not only a former mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910 but also an avowed anti-Semite. Kandel is a busy scientist whose work is carried out within the confines of the breathtakingly built ‘The Jerome L. Green Science Centre’. Designed by Renzo Piano, the building is spread across 450,000 square feet and houses 56 laboratories, including the Mind Brain Behaviour Institute.

“There is Life After The Nobel Prize” is Kandel’s undying commitment to his chosen profession. It is a classic testimony to the drive and dedication of a man who never allowed neither fame nor glory to usurp a much higher purpose. His intellectual thirst continues unabated and it is this insatiable urge that benefits mankind as a whole.

(There is Life After The Nobel Prize is published by Columbia University Press and will be released on the 18th of January 2022)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy

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