Interview with Nobel Prize Winning Neuroscientist Prof. Eric Kandel

Eric R. Kandel, M.D., is University Professor and Fred Kavli Professor, Department of Neuroscience, Columbia University; and Senior Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science and Co-Director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

He has received over 20 honorary degrees and is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences as well as the National Science Academies of Austria, France, Germany, and Greece. He has been recognized with the Albert Lasker Award, the Heineken Award of the Netherlands, the Gairdner Award of Canada, the Harvey Prize and the Wolf Prize of Israel, the National Medal of Science USA, and the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000.

The following has been paraphrased from an interview with Prof. Eric Kandel on June 15th, 2018.

How much of your success do you attribute to your education in the Yeshiva (a Jewish institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts)?

It’s funny, I think a lot about that. I consider myself very Jewish, and I like the education I received at the Yeshiva. I think I gained a great deal out of it, not only being comfortable as a Jew, but also getting an understanding of the historical roots of the religion, the meaning of the traditions and prayers, and learning how to speak Hebrew. I’m very glad I had the experience.

What do you attribute the fact to that Jewish people make up less than 0.2% of people on Earth, yet over 20% of Nobel Prize winners? 

It is a remarkable stat, but historically, Jews tend to succeed in intellectually demanding roles. I think one way to explain it is the long tradition of an intense focus on religious studies. But after the second temple was destroyed, Jews could no longer connect to God through the priesthood, so each Jew had to learn to pray by themselves. This meant they had to learn how to read and write, first the men, irrespective of social class, and later the women as well. They were the first universally literate people in the world. Whereas other people were just educating their elites, Jews were educating everybody. That may be one contributing factor.

Looking back to when you were starting out in the neurosciences, what were some of the biggest misconceptions about how the brain worked?

We didn’t know what the different regions of the brain did, later we discovered that this localization of function is a major feature. Also, there were some people who believed that the mind was not part of the brain. They thought the brain was useful for studying certain functions, but not mental functions like consciousness. It was thought that mental functions might not be located in the brain. Well, where were they going to be located if not in the brain?

What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions today might be?

Some people still have difficulty distinguishing the mind as a series of functions carried out by the brain, they think of the mind as somehow being separate from the brain.

There seems to come a point in a researcher’s career where they study a single aspect of neuroscience for so long that they almost forget that it is part of the brain. You’ve been a champion of this reductionist approach to neuroscience, but do you think there is a limit to how deep a researcher should go into a particular sub-field when trying to understand epi-phenomenon like memory or disease?

Of course there is a danger that you get so narrow that you begin to lose the forest through the trees. You have to be careful; reductionism is useful in certain context and not useful in others. It is an approach, like all approaches it has strengths, but it also has limitations.

You have spent much of your career studying synapse formation. Just how complex are these interactions between two neurons?

We know, from electron microscopy, what that connection between neurons looks like. There are two types of synapses or junctions – gap junctions which are electrical synapses, and chemical junctions, and they are really quite different. Electrical junctions form an actual bridge between the pre-synaptic and the post-synaptic neuron. In chemical junctions, which are the most common functions in the brain, there is a separation called the synaptic cleft. We didn’t realize that there were these two distinct forms of synaptic transmission till about 1950 when electron microscopy was applied to the study of synapses and the time structure of the two types of synapses could be delineated.

Do you believe that the forces governing these connections are entirely deterministic, or is there some element of random chaos there?

There almost certainly is some degree of randomness, but I wouldn’t call it chaos. There are important overriding principles that seem to apply to all parts of the nervous system. For example, usage effects synaptic strength, as does aging, etc. etc.

What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to further understanding the brain today?

The brain is very complicated! But we are making progress. Imaging has been a major step forward. There are also now ways to implant electrodes in the brain or stimulate areas in the brain without implantation to selectively activate some areas without activating others. To study regions, systems, and pathways, it is very important to activate different components selectively.

Do you think there is an upper limit to how much we can know about ourselves?

No. We aren’t that dumb. And now we have computers and many other new technical devices to help us, the more complex it gets, the more sophisticated our analysis has to be. What’s interesting is, that in the last 15-20 years, there has been a tremendous increase in the power of theoretical neuroscience through computational modeling of neural functions. That has added a great deal of richness to our analysis and understanding of neural circuits and behavior.

If you were starting your career today in neuroscience, what problem would you work on?

I still like the problems of memory storage. I also come from a clinical background, I’m trained as a psychiatrist, and I’d want to see if I could make progress in understanding what goes wrong in the brain in schizophrenia or depression. These are major clinical problems which we still don’t know very much about.

Do we have any way of determining how much relative progress we have made in understanding how a memory is formed?

We have made a lot of progress. We know for example that different regions contribute differently to memory storage. We know there are two major classes, implicit memories often involve perceptual and motor skills, like learning to hit backhand in tennis, explicit memory is remembering people and places such as what you were doing last week. We also know which regions of the brain are associated with each type of memory. We still have a long way to go, though our knowledge of the brain is growing quickly, it is still the most complicated structure in the universe.


Click here to read Prof. Kandel’s wonderfully written sketch of his life leading up to receiving his Nobel Prize.

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