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My inspiring wife


Studying the direct cortical response
Eric Kandel Scientist
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Now I must tell you, when I was thinking about this recently, I realized that almost every move I made in the Grundfest lab had a permanent effect on me. I mean, I really in many ways have spent the rest of my life studying nerve cells one cell at a time. It didn't immediately start that way, but I ended up that way. He suggested I work with Dominick Purpura who was a young faculty person. This was at Columbia, Harry Grundfest was at Columbia. [Dominick] was in a neurosurgery department. He wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but he decided maybe he would do full time research. He had done research when he was at Harvard Medical School, and he liked research more than clinical practice.

And he was looking at the interactions between serotonin and LSD, and there was indirect evidence that they were supposed to oppose one another. And he and I did experiments, I mean he told me what to do. We did experiments. I was watching him, and we showed they were actually synergistic, and we brought very good evidence that they were synergistic.

And then because of Harry's interest, he got interested in the properties of the dendrites. And they developed a technique for studying it called the direct cortical response in which they would record from an area of the cortex and stimulate nearby with the assumption that since they're dealing [with] the surface of the cortex and the dendrites go up, they were stimulating afferent pathways that synapsed directly on the dendrites. And they saw evoked responses that were graded, and they thought that they were providing – and I was there – evidence for that fact that dendrites give rise to graded responses.

Even I felt a little bit skeptical about the methodology we were using, and so did Dom who was much more sophisticated, obviously, than I was. And even Harry. Especially Harry. But they thought recording from single cells in the cerebral cortex was beyond methodological capability at that time. But I had a fantastic experience there. I'd broken up with Anna earlier in medical school. In by senior year of medical school I'd met Denise, the woman I would ultimately marry, and we had already, by the time I was taking this elective, pretty much decided we would get married.

We had dinner together one night, and I said to her, 'You know, I could really see doing this for the rest of my life. But you don't have any money and I don't have any money, we want to get married, want to have kids. I've got to go into private practice.' And she said, 'Money is of no significance whatsoever.' These are words she's never repeated afterwards, but they really were very inspiring at the moment. And I decided I would go ahead with this.

Eric Kandel (b. 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, 'If you want to understand the brain you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.' Kandel then studied the neural system of the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has large nerve cells amenable to experimental manipulation and is a member of the simplest group of animals known to be capable of learning. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He is also Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Kandel's popularized account chronicling his life and research, 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind', was awarded the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Dominick Purpura, Harry Grundfest

Duration: 2 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016