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Being in the right place at the right time


Driven to study Aplysia by a sense of adventure
Eric Kandel Scientist
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In 1963, we came back to Harvard. In retrospect, there are several things that strike me about this almost magical period. One is the naiveté, one might call it in retrospect courage, but for me it was naiveté, to give up something in which I had achieved what overtly seemed like considerable success, the hippocampus, to go not to the spinal cord, but to an invertebrate animal, which really was a lower class solution, if you will, for most neuroscientists. It was quite bold. Alden wouldn't do it. He wouldn't leave the mammalian nervous system. People thought the mammalian nervous system was magical and was governed by different rules. Somehow my naiveté, not that I had any background in biology at all, I believed in a conservation of biological principles; if evolution finds a mechanism that works, it's likely to retain it. That seemed to me to be very obvious. So… but Eccles actually contacted me and said it was a major decision, and it was a mistake. And that I should come and work with him on the hippocampus. And he invited both Alden and me to join him to work on the hippocampus. And Eccles was a genius who knew infinitely more than either of us, or both of us together, but what would he teach us about the hippocampus that we didn't already know? So I didn't think that was a very profitable thing. Also, I wanted to be more adventurous.

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: John Eccles

Duration: 1 minute, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016