Did Eric Kandel rest on his laurels? No

Eric Kandel at a ceremony in Vienna in November 2019.Credit: APA-PictureDesk GmbH / Shutterstock

There is life after the Nobel Prize Eric Kandel Columbia Univ. Press (2021)

In 1996, Denise Kandel warned her husband that if he won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on memory, it should be later than sooner. Laureates too often become socialites, she warned, and stop contributing to the intellectual life of science.

Barely four years later, Eric Kandel shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was then 71 years old, an age where he could have legitimately rested on his laurels. But rest is not one of Kandel’s many assets. His new book, There is life after the Nobel Prize, describes her accomplishments over the past two decades – numerous enough to allay Denise’s fears, he writes. It’s hard to disagree.

The volume adds to Kandel’s respected literary work, which ranges from textbooks in neuroscience to highly original popular science. But it’s light and looks like a coda. There he summarizes his post-Nobel research (on learning and memory deficits in drug addiction, schizophrenia and aging), writing and public awareness. And he thanks his colleagues and sponsors for his long career, especially the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Columbia University in New York, where he remains a professor and institute director. A more complete and poignant autobiography can be found in Kandel’s 2006 book In search of memory. There, he explains why his traumatic childhood in Austria led him to study the mechanisms of memory. This book also presents a wonderful history of neuroscience.

Give sense

Kandel was born in 1929 in Vienna. Her family was Jewish and owned a toy store. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, his parents began their one-year effort to emigrate. They finally arrived in New York City shortly before the outbreak of World War II, physically unharmed but psychologically traumatized.

The incidents of the past year in Vienna have been etched in Kandel’s brain: the burning of synagogues in Kristallnacht in November 1938, the eviction of the family apartment just days after his ninth birthday, the fact of being rejected by his school friends and brutalized by neighborhood bullies. Such memories would suddenly go into his consciousness years later.

His desire to make sense of his experience led him to study history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he won a scholarship. There, a girlfriend introduced him to psychoanalysis. Believing that this new way of analyzing patterns of mind and memory might give him the understanding he was looking for, he entered New York University medical school.

Disillusionment with the non-empirical nature of psychoanalysis sets in quickly. Kandel realizes that progress requires going back to basics. In the 1950s, he joined pioneering neuroscientists studying the physiology of the brain, such as the electrical properties of neurons. Kandel went even further. Deciding exactly how neurons facilitate learning and memory required study in a very simple organism and very simple learning-dependent behavior, he decided.

The reductionist approach he chose – the protective reflex of gill removal in the sea slug Aplysia – raised eyebrows. Most neuroscientists believed that simple invertebrates could never elucidate the complexities of mammalian memory systems. In fact, Kandel discovered that as the slug learned what environmental conditions forced it to suck in its gills for protection, its synapses – structures that allow electrical or chemical signals to pass between neurons – were modified.

He then described the neural circuits and molecular biology involved in the short and long term memory of slugs. Determining these principles won him the Nobel Prize, and they have been found to be true for all creatures, including humans. Post-Nobel, he studied memory in higher organisms, including mice, producing large-scale articles until he was 80 years old.

The Nobel experiment broadened Kandel’s horizons beyond experimental science. The success of In search of memory awakened in him the desire for wider communication. I met him in Vienna in 2008, when a German language documentary based on this book was about to have its premiere (Nature 453, 985; 2008). Radiant with energy, he had started to make peace with his hometown.

His new book tells how, after the award, Austrian President Thomas Klestil made overtures. Kandel initially repelled them, claiming he considered himself a Jewish American scientist. But he then proposed that Klestil pay homage to him by hosting a symposium at the University of Vienna on Austria’s response to the Nazi doctrine of National Socialism and its implications for science and the humanities. Since this symposium in 2003, Kandel has acted as an advisor to a few Austrian neuroscience organizations. “My relationship with Austria is getting more and more comfortable, although it still has some way to go,” he writes.

Since the 1960s he has collected 20th-century German and Austrian Expressionist art, an interest that led him to his 2012 book The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, the mind and the brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present day. This superb volume sheds light on the period when modernists of all shades were interested in the inner workings of the mind. Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis; novelist Arthur Schnitzler pioneered the inner monologue storytelling; expressionist artists such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele represented subjective emotions. Kandel guides readers through this cultural history and describes how the neuroscience of perception explains much of our intuitive understanding of art. He embodies the breadth of Kandel’s vision. There was a life after the Nobel Prize.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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