A Conversation About The Brain with Eric R. Kandel

Claudia Dreifus as you may be aware from her New York Times columns “A Conversation with…,” The New York Review of Books, or The Daily, is a knowledgeable, entertaining conduit between scientific jargon and layman understanding. Her guest in this season’s kick-off of the Y’s Science Talks with Claudia Dreifus, is neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel who has done pioneering research on the brain, particularly in the area of memory. At almost 89, the distinguished researcher/author/teacher goes to work at Columbia University every day. His latest book: The Disordered Mind – What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves was just published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Intrigued by his background, Dreifus asks Kandel about immigrating from Vienna to escape the Nazis and whether that affected professional choices. As she inferred, experiencing incomprehensible mass behavior propelled the MD towards an area of study which included psychoanalysis as well as medicine. In 2000, Kandel won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of molecular processes that underlie learning and memory. Suddenly Austria reached out to him as a native son. “And I said, no, you’re mistaken, this is an American, Jewish Nobel Prize.”

Questions about adjustment to life in the United States elicit the response that because relatives paved the way and he astonishingly never experienced anti-Semitism here. “I had an easy time of it.” The scientist almost sounds apologetic. Dreifus asks whether he finds current mass behavior disturbing. He does though takes pains not to compare it with pre-WWII.

“What DO Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves?” she inquires referring to the title of Kandel’s new book. (To my mind this was never addressed. What about those we call geniuses, madmen? Should we nurture, medicate, treat? ) “In biology,” he begins, “it was unclear that things not neurological were mediated by the brain.” Attributing brain functions to biology was apparently a mistake. Kandel distinguishes between the brain and the mind.

“The brain reflexively acts while the mind, whose functions are carried out by the brain, falls in love. It’s a single magnificent organ.” That the mind is not a separate physical entity makes this difficult to grasp. A parallel might be observed in the once extreme separation between science and humanities, something Kandel sees as gradually merging into a search for the meaning of human existence. Later, he’s asked his opinion of “dualism” in regard to the existence of the soul. “There’s nothing to it. Everything you feel comes from your brain,” he says. “Take care of it.”

“When I was a medical student, the only images of the brain we had were x-rays. Now we can even see different regions. During the 1950s, people thought of it as a black hole. It was said we’d get to the moon faster than comprehending the brain, and indeed we did.”

Dreifus recognizes optimism in Kandel’s book based on advances in multiple areas of study. Though frustrated by frequent lack of investigation into outcomes, the guest’s hopeful enthusiasm is, in fact, palpable.

Audience questions center on aging – memory, Alzheimer’s, dementia. The most startling information is that osteocalcin, a protein hormone, seems to reverse age memory loss. In fact, Kandel has changed his own exercise routine from swimming     to walking because the latter releases this hormone. “There are available drugs to prevent new plaque from forming to Alzheimer’s or dementia, but we get to people too late. If you’ve lost nerve cells, they don’t grow back.”

An audience member whose grandmother had the disease asks for a recommendation to prevent his following suit. Kandel suggests getting brain scans every year from perhaps the time one is 30 if Alzheimer’s runs in the family. Caught early, nerve cell loss can be halted. This is hardly common knowledge. Nor, one assumes, would insurance pay for such scans.

Dreifus asks about retraining other aspects of the brain when nerve cells are lost. “Yes. Nerve cells have a wonderful capability of making connections. As you learn, connections increase and are altered,” Kandel nods. In answer to another audience inquiry we’re told schizophrenia in young adults has a genetic component – “heritable degeneracy.” It erupts “when certain mature brains face stresses.” A combination of analysis and drug treatment is preferable, but the relationship between genetics and psychiatric diseases remains greatly unresolved.

Can meditation be used to stave off degeneration? “We don’t know.” How has autism helped you understand the brain better? “It shows how one or two genes can significantly affect.” Most audience questions are intelligent. Answers, alas, are vague. One gathers from Alan Jasanoff’s New York Times Book Review that many of these topics are addressed in print.

Jasanoff, director of the Center for Neurobiological Engineering at M.I.T., writes that Kandel’s book covers significant, ground-breaking research, but also highlights “the need to consider our brains in the social, environmental, and bodily contexts in which they operate – contexts that help make us who we are, in both sickness and health.” We’ve become  extremely specialized often overlooking a whole picture.

One might buy the book if further interested, but definitely start walking.

Photos Courtesy of 92Y

A Conversation with Eric R. Kandel
Interviewer/author Claudia Dreifus
Science Talks with Claudia Dreifus
September 25, 2018
92 Y Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
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About Alix Cohen (506 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.